Skip to main content

Full text of "Ghazali by Eric L. Ormsby"

See other formats


Eric Ormsby 



Abd al-Malik, Chase F. Robinson 
Abd al-Kahman III, Maribel Fierro 
Abu Nuwas, Philip Kennedy 
Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Christopher Melchert 
Ahmad Kiza Khan Barelwi, Usha Sanyal 
Al-Ma’mun, Michael Cooperson 
Al-Mutanabbi, Margaret Larkin 
Amir Khusraw, Sunil Sharma 
E1 Hajj Beshir Agha, Jane Hathaway 
Fazlallah Astarabadi and the Hurujis, Shazad Bashir 
Ibn Arabi, William C. Chittick 
Ibn Fudi, Ahmad Dallal 
Ikhwan al-Safa, Godefroid de Callatay 
Shajkh Mujid, Tamima Bayhom-Daou 

For current information and details of other books in the series, 
please visit 



O N E >V O R L D 

O X r o R D 


A Oneworld Book 

Published by Oneworld Publications 2007 

Copyright © Eric Ormsby 2007 

All rights reserved 
Copyright under Berne Convention 
A CIP record for this title is available 
from the British Library 

ISBN-1 3: 978 — 1 — 85 1 68 — 4-14 — 4 

Typeset by Jayvee,Trivandrum, India 
Printed and bound in India for Imprint Digital 

Oneworld Publications 
185 Banbury Road 
Oxford 0X2 7AR 


Learn more about Oneworld. Join our mailing list to 
fmd out about our latest titles and special offers at: 


Preface ix 
Abbreviations xi 
Names and terms xiii 
Chronologj xv 


The Seljuqs 3 

The “Schools” of Law 6 

The Notion of Kalam 1 1 

The Mu‘tazili Factor 12 

AslTari and theThree Brothers 1 3 

Philosophy ( Falsafa ) 1 5 

Thelsma‘ilis 16 

Sufism 18 


A Child of Khorasan 2 1 
The Stages of his Career 24 
Early Studies: Sufi Masters andTheologians 
Juwayni 27 

The Patronage of tlie Powerful 29 
Ghazali at Court 3 1 
TheTemptations of Prestige 32 


Ghazali’s Contributions to Law 35 
The Example of Analogy (qijas) 37 
The Indolence of the Learned 39 


Shafi‘i: tlie Beloved Model 40 
Fidelity to tlie Law 4 1 


Theology vs Philosophy 46 

Against a“Religion of Donkeys” 47 

Ghazali dieTheologian 48 

The Dogmatic Manual al-Iqtisadfi’l-i ‘tiqad 52 

Ghazali’s Mode of Argument in“The Just Balance” 53 

The Shadow of Ibn Sina 5 5 

AHumanAccent 56 

Ghazali on Divine Names 58 

The Absence of Insight as Insight 60 

A Manual for Meditation 62 

Ghazali’s Attitude towards Kalam 63 


Did Ghazali Destroy Philosophy in Islam? 65 
The Seductiveness of System 67 

The Exposition of Philosophy: the Maqasid al-Falasifa 67 
The Attack: Tahafut al-Falasifa 74 


The Breakdown of 1095 87 
Sickness and Healtli 90 

Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (“The Deliverer from Error”) 92 
Scepticism and Ghazali: His Early Crisis 94 
The Significance of Dream 96 
The FourWays 98 

The Decisive Break and the Departure from Baghdad 106 
Baghdad, the “Nest of Darkness” 108 
The Role of Ahmad Ghazali 109 



The Character of the Ihya ’111 
The Architecture of the Ihya ’ 113 


The Return toTeaching 139 
Death and Posthumous Career 141 

Bibliography 145 
Index 151 


I n tliis book, I aim to convey the essentials of the life and thought of 
a religious genius too little known beyond the specialist world. For 
the breadth, subtlety and influence of his work, Ghazali deserves to 
be counted among t hc great figures in intellectual history, wortliy to 
be ranked with Augustine and Maimonides, Pascal and Kierkegaard. 
This book is intended for readers with no previous knowledge of 
Ghazali or indeed of Islamic intellectual history. This means I have 
been obliged to summarize and simplify many crucial points, though 
not, I hope, to over-simplify. 

I refer to Ghazali’s works by their original Arabic titles, often in 
shortened form; tliese are listed in the table of abbreviations. In 
referring to Ghazali’s masterpiece, the Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, I have 
sometimes referred to it as The Revival and sometimes as the Ihya’ . 
I’ve tried wherever possible to key my references to existing English 
translations (which I’ve occasionally modified); translations without 
attribution are my own. Since many Arabic names and terms used 
will be unfamiliar to non-specialist readers, I’ve included brief 
descriptions of the various political entities and schools of thought 
they represent in the introduction. 

I would like to thank Professor Patricia Crone for inviting me to 
contribute this volume to the series. I am grateful too for her com- 
ments and suggestions which have improved the work throughout. 
The anonymous reader for Oneworld offered several criticisms from 
which I have benefited and for which I express my thanks. Finally, I 
am grateful to Mike Plarpley at Oneworld, who has been a most 
patient and helpful editor. 





EI 2 











The Revival 

Maurice Bouyges, Essai de chronologie des oernres de 
Al-Ghazali (Algazel) 

The Camhridge History oj Iran 

The Encyclopaedia ojlslam (2nd edition) 

Ghazali, Faysal al-tajriqa 

“A Revised Chronology of (.! haza I i ’s Writings” JA OS 

Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘ulumal-din 

Ghazali, al-lqtisadji’l-i‘tiqad 

Ghaza\i,Jawahir al-Qur’an 

Ghazali, Letter to a Disciple: Ayyuha’l-Walad 

Ghazali, Maqasid al-jalasja 

Freedom and Fuljillment: an Annotated Translation J 
Al-Ghazali 's al-Munqidh min al-Dalal 
Ghazali, al-Munqidh min al-Dalal 
Qur’an (Koran) 

Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din 
Ghazali, Tahajut al-jalasja 



Ash‘arite the school of Sunni theology founded by Ash‘ari (d. 938). 

Buyid Shi‘ite dynasty in power from c. 932 to 1062, overt hrown 
by tlie Seljuqs. 

dhawq “taste,”a Sufi technical term for unmediated mystical 

Falsafa Islamic Aristotelean philosophy (from Greek 

Patimids Shi‘ite Isma‘ili dynasty in Egypt and N. Africa from 

Jiqh Islamic law. 

Hadith t he attested words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. 

Hanafi The school of Sunni law based on the teachings of Abu 

Hanbali The school of Sunni law based on the teachings of Ahmad 
ibn Hanbal. 

Imam Prayer leader; in Shi‘ite tradition, t he divinely designated 
guide of the community, sinless and infallible. 

Isma‘ili Shi‘ite sect which broke from mainstream Shi‘ism after 
762 and which acknowledges a line of seven imams; hence 
known as “Seveners.” 

Kalam Islamic theology much given to dialectic and disputation 

madhhab “school” of law or theology, e.g., tlie Hanbali school. 

madrasa institution of learning,“college,” e.g. , the Nizamiya 

Maliki t he school of Sunni law deriving from the teachings of 
Malik ibnAnas. 

Mu‘tazili school of theology characterized by pronounced 



Seljuq SunniTurkic dynasty in power from c. 1038 to 1194. 
Shafi‘ite the school of Sunni law based on the teachings of Shafi‘i. 
Sunna prescribed, normative behavior modeled on die example of 
tlie Prophet. 

taqlid belief based on authority, rather than independent 

usul al-jiqh legal theory, the “roots of tlie law.” 



c. 1072-73 

c. 1077-78 


June-July 1091 


July-Nov. 1095 


Born in a village nearTus in northeast Iran. 
Studies atTus under the Imam Radhakani 
and at Jurjan with the Imam Abu Nasr 

Returns toTus for t lirec further years of 
study.Travels to Nishapur where he pursues 
advanced studies with the jurist and t heolo- 
gian Juwayni and t he Sufi master Farmadhi. 

Death of Juwayni. Attracts die patronage of 
die vizier Nizam al-Mulk and joins t he 
court-camp of the Seljuq Sultan Malik Shah 
as professional jurist and theologian. 

Appointed professor by Nizam al-Mulk at 
t he Nizamiyya college in Baghdad. 

Period of professional celebrity in Baghdad; 
present at the investiture of t lic Abbasid 
Caliph Mustazhir in 1093. Assassination of 
Nizam al-Mulk on 14 October 1092; death 
of Sultan Malik Shah one month later. 

Period of spiritual crisis leading to 
renunciation of his position and departure 
from Baghdad. 

Period of seclusion, first in Damascus for 
two years, with subsequent journeys to 
Jerusalem and Hebron; makes t hc pilgrimage; 
returns to Damascus. During t hc eleven-year 




July-August 1106 

December 18,1111 

period from 1095 to 1 106, writes t h e 
major Sufi works on which his fame rests, in 
particular, tlae Ihja’ ‘ulum al-din, followed by 
several versions of tlie work in both Arabic 
and Persian. 

Returns to Iraq, with brief stays in Baghdad 
and Hamadhan. 

AtTus, teaching and advising a circle of 

Returns to teaching at the Nizamiyya in 
Nishapur at the urging of the vizier Faklir 
al-Mulk. Composes his spiritual autobiogra- 
phy al-Munqidh min al-Dalal. 

Widadraws from public teaching and returns 
toTus where he acts as spiritual advisor to 
Sufi aspirants. 

Dies atTus and is buried there. 


I n July 1095, t he celebrated jurist and theologian Abu Hamid 
al-Ghazali experienced a sudden breakdown. He could neither eat 
nor sleep; even a sip of broth seemed too much. As his crisis wors- 
ened, he lost the power of speech. He was only thirty-seven years 
old. For a decade, as thc darling of a young regime eager to promote 
a new form of orthodoxy, he had lectured to students in dreir 
hundreds at a recently-established university. He had frequently 
played a part in the courts of both the Abbasid Caliph and thc Seljuq 
Sultan. As a lecturer and writer, he had been acclaimed for his elo- 
quence; now, abruptly, he was inarticulate and forced to suspend his 
teaching. The doctors brought to his bedside gave conflicting diag- 
noses: all proved wrong. The breakdown lasted for six months. 
Though we know of tliis ordeal mainly from his own account, otlrers 
noticed its effects on him; a student who knew him later would 
write, “I saw that t he man had recovered from madness.” In his own 
description of tlre episode, written some ten years later, Ghazali 
stated that his crisis was caused not by dre doubt which had tor- 
mented him as a young man, but by something more devastating: he 
had discovered dre truth but could not act on it. He was effectively 
paralyzed by the truth. 

What was dris “trudr?” How did Ghazali come to it? It might be 
summed up in the phrase “dre Sufi path,” but that tells us little. He 
would argue that such truth couldn’t be reached by intellectual 
medrods, however rigorously applied, nor could it be acquired 
through books. Such ultimate trudr — or “certainty,” as he put it — had 
to be “tasted” to be known. It wasn’t an intellectual trudr — or not 
only that: it was truth as experienced, not fully expressible in words, 
but expressible only in action — by which of course he meant 
informed action. 



I will show by what route Ghazali arrived at this conclusion. In 
later life, he would summarize his sense of final trutli not only by 
invoking the mystical notion of “taste” — to be discussed in Chapter 
Five — but by use of the formula “knowledge and action” (‘ ilm wa- 
‘amal in Arabic). For him, knowledge without action was futile; so 
was action without knowledge. Hot li had to be present for trutla to 
become manifest. In a late Sufi work, he would go so far as to exhort 
a disciple:“Knowledge without action is madness and action without 
knowledge is void” ( Letter , 1 6) . 

Because Ghazali possessed an unusual gift for expressing complex 
notions in simple and vivid terms — and because he often does so with 
an unexpectedly personal accent — his writings have a deceptive 
immediacy. He can seem improbably “modern.”This may account for 
his continuing popularity, and not only among Muslims. He appears 
to speak directly to his reader. 

A millennium separates us from him and his world.To enter t hat 
world, even in a cursory way, it is essential to have some sense of the 
historical and intellectual context in which he flourished. His career 
was atypical in some respects. He stood out among his contempo- 
raries, at times to his cost.To appreciate his distinctive originality, as 
well as t he enduring contributions which he made, we must briefly 
sketch certain aspects of his milieu, together with the schools and tra- 
ditions with which he engaged. 

The crisis of July 1095 divides Ghazali’s life into before and after. 
He certainly saw it thus. By November 1095, whenhe finally formed 
his resolve to follow die Sufi way, he had become a different man. 
Even so, there was an inner continuity, a hidden coherence, to his 
career. The earlier phases, like certain of his earlier books, are mir- 
rored and subtly transformed in his later works and deeds. Various 
external constants, ranging from political events to dieological and 
legal wrangles, to less conspicuous but equally important develop- 
ments in Sufism, exerted an induence on his life and diought. The 
aspirations and agendas of his Seljuq masters, and in particular dae 
projects of Nizam al-Mulk, his formidable patron, profoundly 
affected him and the tendencies of die several “schools” of legal 


theory played a decisive part in his life. Ghazali was a Shafi‘ite (as I 
shall discuss in ChapterTwo), but came into frequent contact, often 
outriaht conflict, witli Hanafis and Hanbalis, as well as with repre- 
sentatives of otlier traditions. In theology, or Kalam (treated in 
Chapter Three), he espoused Ash‘arism but dealt, often pugna- 
ciously, with Mu‘tazilis, Isma‘ilis, and others. And there were propo- 
nents of Falsafa, or “philosophy,” to be countered, as I show in 
Chapter Four. For Ghazali, tlrat powerful amalgam of Aristotelean 
teaching with Neo-Platonic t hought — of which Ibn Sina (Avicenna) 
was the most daunting exponent — represented a challenge and an 
opportunity.These and other factors helped shape Ghazali’s mature 
position and his distinctive form of Sufism (which I describe in 
Chapters Five and Six). 

Attempting to deal with Ghazali’s life and thought, as with that of 
any otlier medieval Muslim thinker, forces an engagement witlr a 
swarm of unfamiliar and often confusing names and terms, like those 
scattered throughout the preceding paragraph. In this introduction, 
I will briefly describe and characterize those which bear most 
directly on Ghazali’s life and t hought . I hope that this approach will 
make it easier for the reader who is not a specialist to follow the more 
detailed discussions of later chapters. 


Ghazali’s career coincided with the rise and consolidation of tlre 
Seljuq dynasty and cannot be understood apart from it. The Seljuqs 
constituted a powerful clan with thc larger Turkic confederation 
known as tlie Oghuz Turks — “thc Ghuzz” to Arab chroniclers. 
(“Oghuz” means “nine” and refers to the various clans which formed 
the confederation.)The Seljuqs, eventually masters of a vast domain 
encompassing Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Central Asia and extending to dre 
borders of China, took their name from t heir tent h-ccntu ry leader 
Seljuq ibn Duqaq ibnTimur, the commander also known asYaligh, 
“Iron Bow.” These Turks converted to Islam in the tent h century but 


tliey brought into their new faith influences from a host of other tra- 
ditions, including Buddliism, Manicheanism, Nestorian Christianity, 
and even Kliazar Judaism, as well as tlieir native shamanistic practises. 
More significantly from a political perspective, as one historian has 
put it, “the coming of the Seljuqs inaugurated the age of alien, espe- 
ciallyTurkish, rule”inthe Islamic heartlands (Bosworth, CHI 5:3). 

From a doctrinal perspective, die Seljuqs were Sunni Muslims. 
They sought to impose strict Sunni practises on their conquered ter- 
ritories, both through conviction and as a way of creating political 
and civic unity.To tliis end, especially under the resolute administra- 
tion of the powerful vizier Nizam al-Mulk (the Persian statesman 
whose thirty-year control of Seljuq policy led Ibn Athir, a later histo- 
rian, to call it al-dawla al-Nizamiya, “the dynasty of Nizam” ( EI 2 
8:941)) the Seljuqs adopted a particular school of law — Shafi‘ite — 
and a specific form of ortliodox Sunni theology — AslTarite — both 
of which t hey sought to promote and establish throughout their 
domains. This agenda was all the more important because their 
predecessors, the Buyids, who had controlled both the Caliphate 
and its territories for a century, had been Shi‘ites. In addition, t he 
Seljuqs faced a continuing menace from the powerful Fatimid 
dynasty in Egypt; the Fatimids were Isma‘ilis, a sect which had 
broken away from mainstream Shi‘ism in t lie eight h century and 
which, beginning in t he late ninth century, continually sent mission- 
aries on proselytizing expeditions to all corners of the Islamic world. 
The Fatimids — and the Isma‘ilis elsewhere, but especially in Syria — 
thus represented botli a military and a doctrinal threat to Seljuq 

The first incursions of die Seljuqs in the eleventh century brought 
t hem into Afghanistan and Khorasan , the nort h-eastern province of 
Iran, where Ghazali was born.They came as raiders intent on plun- 
der but quickly settled.There were not only the Buyids to contend 
with, but also the Ghaznavids, a rival Turkic dynasty which had 
earlier invaded India under the formidable Mahmud of Ghazna. In 
1038, after routing Ghaznavid armies in Afghanistan, die Seljuq 
commanderTughril Bey proceeded to Nishapur, in the very heart of 


Khorasan, and had himself proclaimed Sultan; he ruled for the next 
twenty-five years, consolidating and extending Seljuq power. In 
1055, three years before Ghazali’s hirtli, Tughril triumphantly 
entered Baghdad, seat of the Caliphate. His Sultanate was confirmed 
by die Abbasid Caliph al-Qa’im, who went so far as to seat him on a 
throne and wrap a cloak of honor around him. The Caliphate thus 
came under the protection and the control of the victorious Seljuqs; 
this was crucial because, however feeble it had become, the Abbasid 
Caliphate still embodied authority and prestige in both religious and 
dynastic terms. Ghazali respected and upheld both offices; indeed, 
he puts“Caliphs, kings and Sultans”second only to the prophets — and 
ahead of scholars — in the ranks of t lie knowledgeable, tliough dieir 
knowledge, as he notes, is restricted to purely external matters 
( Ihja ’, 1 : 24) . During Ghazali’s lifetime, both Sultan and Caliph would 
hold sway in Baghdad, with actual power invested in t he Sultan but 
immense symbolic power represented by t hc Caliph. Ghazali would 
be welcomed, and play an occasional official role, at bodi courts. 
Indeed, he would often act as a liaison between die potentates, 
remarking “I served on several occasions as an envoy between t he 
Sultan and the Commander of the Faidiful [that is, t hc CaliphJ on 
pressing questions” (Krawulsky, 66; Hogga, 46). 

In several of his works, Ghazali sought to justify Seljuq sovereignty 
without compromising Abbasid authority: a delicate juggling act. In 
his masterpiece, The Revival oj the Religious Sciences, he would come to 
the conclusion that “the Caliph is the person to whom the possessor 
of force pays allegiance” and he would elaborate further by saying, 
with obvious reference to the Seljuqs, that“anyone who seizes power 
by force and is obedient to the Caliph . . . is a Sultan wielding valid 
jurisdiction and judgment” (Ihja ’ , 2:179; tr. Hillenbrand, 90).The 
Seljuqs ruled by justified might but the Abbasid Caliph embodied dae 
Imamate itself, a sacrosanct office. 

Tughril Bey had initiated thc Seljuq doctrinal agenda of aggres- 
sively promoting Sunni ort hodoxy. His son Alp Arslan, who suc- 
ceeded Tughril in 1063, furthered this agenda, not least by 
appointing Nizam al-Mulk as his vizier. Alp Arslan was a commanding 


figure — according to one chronicler, “he was tall, with moustaches 
so long that he used to tie up t heir ends when he wished to shoot” 
(Browne, 2:176). Under him, and his successor Malik Shah, die 
Seljuq dynasty achieved its greatest heights but these were often the 
results of tlieir scheming, utterly ruthless, and dazzling vizier’s tire- 
less machinations. 

Malik Shah, Alp Arlan’s successor, ruled for twenty years, from 
1072 until his death in 1092. Ghazali came to maturity and achieved 
renown during his reign; his rise owed much to the patronage of 
Nizam al-Mulk, who appointed him to an influential teaching posi- 
tion at the school in Baghdad which bore his name, the celebrated 
“Nizamiyya” madrasa. Ghazali, along witli other like-minded jurists 
and theologians, played a key role in the vizier’s imposition of a new 
ortliodoxy. After 1092, the year in which both Malik Shah and Nizam 
al-Mulk died, Ghazali’s life would begin to take a different and unex- 
pected course, but his career, as well as certain central aspects of his 
tliought, was influenced and to some extent defined by tlie prevailing 
Seljuq agenda. 


The term“school” — the usual translation of t he Arabic word madhhab 
which also means a “road taken” and by extension, “doctrine” — is a bit 
misleading; it suggests a unified and consistent viewpoint. This was 
not invariably true of the different traditions of legal t heory, nor 
were individual jurists and theorists unanimous in their views. 
Ghazali, though nominally an adherent of the Shafi‘ite school, often 
deviated from strict Shafi‘ism. His contemporary, the Baghdad jurist 
and theologian Ibn ‘Aqil, was even more individualistic; though a 
Hanbali, he took enough interest in both Mu‘tazili theology and in 
Sufism to earn several harsh rebukes and on at least one occasion he 
was obliged to disavow these tendencies publicly (Makdisi, 3—5). 
There are defining differences among the four or five principal 


Shaji‘i and his School 

The four Sunni schools took their names from their illustrious 
founders, all of whom commanded respect for their legal acumen, as 
well as their piety. In the lhja’ , Ghazali praises each of tliese four 
founders, beginning witli Shafi‘i who, not surprisingly, receives his 
highest praise (Ihja’ , 1 : 36 — 40) . Two of the jurists, Malik ibn Anas 
(d. 795) andAhmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) — eponyms ofthe Maliki and 
Hanbali schools, respectively — were also collectors and compilers of 
sacred tradition, the hadiths in which the words and deeds of dae 
Prophet were recorded. Such traditions not only served as one of the 
two fundamental sources, or “roots,” of the law (the other was the 
Qur’an), but constituted t hc core of what Muslims call die Sunna, t hc 
basis of normative behavior, modeled on the attested example of the 
Prophet.The compilations of Malik and of Ahmad ibn Hanbal repre- 
sent two of t hc four canonical collections of such hadith in Sunni tra- 
dition. The Hanbalis placed great emphasis on tradition; several of 
Ghazali’s Hanbali critics would display a certain relish in pointing out 
his supposed weakness in this religious “science.” 

Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i (767—820) — usually called “the 
Imam Shafi‘i” — belonged to t he same Quraysh tribe as the Prophet, 
of whom he was a distant relation. He was originally a disciple of 
Malik ibn Anas, and had met Ahmad ibn Hanbal in Baghdad at least 
once. His distinctive contribution, however, lay not in die compilation 
of traditions but in t hc delineation and refinement of certain forms 
of legal reasoning. He particularly espoused and defended the 
rigorous use of analogy ( qijas ), arrived at through “intellectual 
effort” ( ijtihad ), and was critical of “belief based on authority,” or 
taqlid, dear to many Malikis; though his insistence on analogy also 
represented an effort to curb the excesses of “personal opinion” 
( ra’j ), which he opposed (Shafi‘i, 31). Like other early jurists, he 
condemned the discipline of dieology outright and was reported to 
have thundered: 

My verdict on the people of kalam is that they should be beaten with 
whips and the soles of sandals, and then paraded throusjh all the tribes 


and encampments while it is proclaimed of them, “Such is the reward 
of those who forsake the Qur’an and sunna and give themselves up to 
the kalam .” 

Goldziher 1981, 110 

Shafi‘i is generally credited witli creating the discipline of theoretical 
jurisprudence in Islam, die so-called science of“tlie roots of tlie law,” 
tlie principles of which he articulated in his famous Risala, or 
“Treatise.” Like tlie other founders of legal schools, Shafi‘i was 
revered for his exemplary piety and probity; Ghazali especially 
praises his ascetic way of life and his generosity, as well as his learning 
( lhya ’, 1:36—37). In later ages, he would be accorded the title of 
“Renewer of Religion” for his century. Ghazali frequently invokes 
him as a model of righteousness, not least perhaps because he aspired 
to be the “Renewer of Religion” for his own century. 

The Hanbali School 

This school, founded on the teaching of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), 
holds that the only valid sources of the law are the Qur’an and tradi- 
tion. Not only is speculative theology — along with any figurative 
interpretation of scripture — condemned but so too is the use of“per- 
sonal opinion” (ra ’y) on the jurist’s part.The application of“analogy” 
(i qiyas ) is but sparingly allowed, though Ahmad himself resorted to it 
under other names; he apparently considered it the weakest of the 
principles of legal reasoning (Melchert, 71, 77). Doctrinally, 
Hanbalis held to a qualified literalism: God is the God of the Qur’an 
and He is as He describes Himself tliere. However, Hanbalis are not 
“fundamentalists”in any obvious sense. Ahmad ibn Hanbal combated 
both the anthropomorphism of those who took literally the various 
Qur’anic assertions that God possessed bodily attributes — a hand or 
a face — and the extreme “negative dieology” of such early thinkers as 
Jahm ibn Safwan who denied such attributes outright. For t he 
Hanbalis, the prescribedposition was to acceptthese Qur’anic asser- 
tions “without knowing [or: asking] how.”This formula — the cele- 


brated bi-la kayj — emerged during the notorious “inquisition” 
(mihna), initiated by the Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun, and was uttered by 
Ahmad ibn Hanbal with respect to the nature of the Qur’an. The 
Mu‘tazili position, which the Caliph promoted, held t hat the Qur’an 
was created. Ahmad ibn Hanbal and his followers stuck to t heir posi- 
tion that scripture, as God’s speech, was eternal and uncreated, 
albeit bi-la kayj, “unknowably so.” The formula would eventually 
find its way into Ash‘arite doctrine. 

In Ghazali’s lifetime, the Hanbalis were politically quite active in 
Baghdad, where they were the majority of the populace. Viewing 
Ash‘arism (also discussed below) as a form of “heresy,” certain 
Hanbali zealots launched personal attacks against AslTarite preach- 
ers.They also acted as moral vigilantes, destroying musical instru- 
ments and overturning jugs suspected of holding wine. In 1077, 
when Ghazali was still in his teens, a clash occurred between 
Hanbalis and Ash‘arites in which botli sides hurled mud-brick 
missiles at one another (Cook, 120). (This sort of factional 
strife would lead Ghazali to exclaim, towards tlie conclusion of 
the Ihya’ , “O how much blood has been spilled to promote the 
causes of the masters of the schools of law!”) Finally, the Hanbalis, 
especially in Baghdad, were fervent upholders of tlre claims of 
the Caliphate; tlicy were the “ropes” which held up the Caliphal 
“tent” and, as they liked to say, “if the rope fails, tlie tent collapses” 
(Cook, 122). 

The Hanaji School 

This tradition traces its origins to Abu Hanifa (699—767) and is 
the oldest of thc Sunni schools of law. Its importance with respect 
to Ghazali lies in tlie fact that the Seljuqs tliemselves were initially 
fervent Hanafis.The struggle to impose Shafi‘ite principles, led by 
Nizam al-Mulk with tlie help of Ghazali and otlier scholars, was 
bo th an attempt to supplant the Hanafis and to reduce their influence 
within the ruling Seljuq circles.Theologically, Abu Hanifa had been 
a Murji’i (that is, an upholder of the view that judgment of a 


serious sinner should be “deferred” ( irja ’) and left to God alone), 
but his school was not conspicuously theological at die outset. 
He was attacked by other traditionists for permitting the use of 
“personal opinion” in legal judgments ( EI 2 , 3:162). Over time, his 
legal school would become allied witli a theological tendency, 
parallel in orthodoxy to Ash‘arism and deriving from tlie teaching of 
Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 944). Maturidism became widely influ- 
ential, especially in Transoxiana, from where it spread among the 
Turks. It would represent “tlie dieological face of Hanafism” (Cook, 
307) by Ghazali’s time. The conquering Seljuqs adhered to this 
school, which they vigorously promoted when they first came to 

Despite the fact that Shafi‘ite legal theory originally constituted a 
synthesis between the teachings of Abu Hanifa and t hosc of Malik ibn 
Anas, condicts and rivalry occurred between dae Hanafi and Shafi ‘ite 
schools virtually from their beginning. Many of Ghazali’s adver- 
saries, in legal as well as doctrinal (and political) matters, would 
come from among t he Hanafis, and towards the end of his life diey 
would denounce him to the Sultan (Krawulsky, 63). 

The Maliki School 

This school, deriving its authority from Malik ibn Anas (d. 795), a 
native of Medina, would become particularly strong in t he Maghrib. 
Several of Ghazali’s most prominent students were Malikis from dae 
Islamic West; a few would also become his severest critics. Like 
Shafi‘ism, Malikism had no original thcological stance, but adopted 
Ash‘arism outright. Despite this common ground, Western Malikis 
displayed a tendency towards extreme dogmatism; one of Ghazali’s 
pupils, AbuAbdAllah al-Mazari (d. 1141) — whom one scholar char- 
acterizes as a “fundamentalist” Ash‘arite (Cook, 358) — would later 
condemn liis teacher for his forays into philosophy (Ormsby 1984, 
101) .The Maliki jurists and scholars denounced the Ihya ’ and in 1 1 09 
— two years before Ghazali’s death — copies were publicly burned in 
Almoravid Spain (Serrano Ruano, 137). 


The Ash ‘arite School of Islamic Theology ( Kalam ) 

Nizam al-Mulk sought to pair Shafi‘ite legal teachings with Ash‘arite 
theology and to have both taught in tlie schools which he established. 
Ghazali taught t liis combination of legal theory and theology in 
Baghdad for about ten years. Ash‘arism, which eventually developed 
into the dominant form of Sunni orthodoxy, stemmed from the 
teachings ofAbu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, a native of Basra, who died in 
935 . His particular strain of orthodoxy, steadily refined and codified 
in the century and a half before Ghazali’s involvement, may be seen 
as the product of a long effort of reconciliation between die pietistic 
demands of dae Hanbalite tradition and the rationalistic methodol- 
ogy of die Mu‘tazilis. As we shall see, Ash‘ari was a Mu‘tazili until 
around t lie age of forty; he knew dieir methods and t heir positions 
from die inside. 

Ash‘arism sometimes provoked vehement opposition but it did 
hold t h c ■ possibility of dogmatic compromise: it enshrined pious tra- 
dition while allowing scope for logical reasoning (if mainly in 
mediod) and adherents of both the Shafi‘ite and the Maliki law- 
schools, with their strong traditionalist origins, would come to 
accept it. Under thc Seljuqs, this would prove a winning, and quite 
successful, combination, thanks in no small part to Ghazali and his 
great teacher, Juwayni. 


Theology has always been a quarrelsome discipline, and in Islam, 
quite raucously so. Flourishing amid confrontation and polemic, it 
arose out of spoken disputations, the form and tenor of which are 
retained in its written manifestations. Even in later centuries, when 
the most intricate topics are explored, the verbal aspect continues to 
resound.“If an opponent says . . .”is followed, in short order, by“dien 
I respond.” Not surprisingly, the whole discipline came to be sub- 
sumed under the rubric of“speech,” ( kalam in Arabic). Theologians 


were known as “speakers” or “discoursers” (mutakallimun) , tlaat is, 
“dialecticians” (on the pattern of the Greek dialektikoi) . To more tra- 
ditional Muslims, the discipline always bore a whiff of the presump- 
tuous, if not t he downright reprehensible. Neither scripture nor 
sacred tradition, they would say, provides for this mode of discourse; 
how then might it be sanctioned? And who are we to “speak,” let alone 
debate, about God? As we shall see in ChapterThree, dais is a question 
which Ghazali would attempt to answer in his own way, not least by 
transforming the very mode of theological discourse in Islam. 


Ash‘arism was an offshoot of the broader movement known as 
Mu‘tazilism. The name derives from die Arabic verb “to withdraw” 
(. i‘tazala ), a reference to the fact diat two of its founders had dis- 
tanced themselves from tlie circle of tlieir revered teacher al-Hasan 
al-Basri, over the vexed question of thc status of sinners within the 
Islamic community.The Mu‘tazilis, who became dominant for a cen- 
tury or so under the Abbasids and endured as a school until t he 
elevenda century, were the heirs of earlier tendencies. Their roots 
extended back to the earliest period of theological speculation in t hc 
eighth century, centred on the Qadariyah — or “free will” — move- 
ment in Syria and Iraq, most notably in cities such as Basra and Kufa. 
Though the Mu‘tazilis fell from favor in die middle of dae ninth cen- 
tury — when the Caliph Mutawakkil repudiated their doctrines — 
diey were still active (and a potent force at times) in Khorasan during 
Ghazali’s lifetime. In Baghdad, at t he Nizamiyya College founded by 
Nizam al-Mulk, their doctrines were studied and taught. As we shall 
see, even as he combated them their principles induenced Ghazali. 

To their opponents, the Mu‘tazilis exalted reason in unacceptable 
ways, giving the human intellect an almost autonomous role.Their 
rationalism led to conclusions — one example of which I discuss 
below — which forced Ghazali and others to attack them. He is care- 
ful to exempt them from any charge of “heresy” (. kufr ) and even 


defends tlieir figurative interpretation of scripture ( Faysal , 
109—1 1 l),butfromhisperspective — first as anAsh‘arite and lateras 
a Sufi — reason could not be regarded as autonomous; he — and 
Ash‘arites generally — rejected any notion of “the intellect’s inde- 
pendent ability” to arrive at final truths. Reliance on reason had led 
Ghazali to his early disabling crisis of scepticism, long before the 
breakdown of 1 095 , and the experience doubtless coloured his view. 
Reason, their beloved “intellect,” led Mu‘tazilis down some strange, 
and untenable, paths; such forays, inspired by reason, prompted a 
backlash among more orthodox t heologians. 

Mu‘tazili thought could take bizarre twists. For example, in t heir 
zeal to maintain God’s unimpeachable justice — one of their five arti- 
cles of fa i t h — certain Mu‘tazilis argued t hat God not only does what 
is right and good, but t hat Fle must do so; in other words, God is 
morally obliged to perform the good. “It is incumbent upon God to 
do what is best,” some would declare, employing an Arabic term that 
connotes legal obligation (wajib ). This follows from a narrowly ratio- 
nalistic interpretation of justice. If we recognize justice, how much 
more so must God? Moreover, good and evil are objective values; all 
humans are capable of recognizing them, and God recognizes them 
too. FIow can a just God be other than supremely good, in ways that 
we can know and assess? 

This is the doctrine of “the optimum” ( aslah ) and was too pun- 
gently rationalistic even for many Mu‘tazilis (who tended to hedge 
on die question of God’s involvement in the evils of His creation). 
Needless to say, it nauseated their adversaries. 


For a certain Mu‘tazili, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, in Basra, the “opti- 
mum” proved the breaking point. He challenged his master to public 
debate over the doctrine. Their encounter illustrates fundamental 
differences between Mu‘tazili ways of thought and those of t heir 
critics. Ash‘ari asked his teacher whether God had performed the 


optimum in the case of t liree individuals: a believer, an unbeliever, 
and a child, all of whom died and were, respectively, rewarded, pun- 
ished, and “neither rewarded nor punished And, he asked, what if 
t he child who died should say, “O Lord, if only you had let me live, it 
would have been ‘optimal,’ for then I would have entered paradise?” 
God, replied the teacher, would answer the child, “I knew tliat if you 
had lived, you would have become a sinner and t hen entered hell.” 
But then, countered Ash‘ari, t he unbeliever would exclaim from 
hell, “O Lord! Why didn’t You kill me as a child too, so that I would- 
n’t sin and then enter hell!”At t h i s , al-Ash‘ari added, all the damned 
in hell would rise to thunder the same protest.The parable, we are 
told, left die Mu‘tazili master speechless. 

Of this anecdote we can say “Si non e vero e ben trovato ” (if it isn’t 
true, it’s well invented). Beyond its obvious point, it captures a fun- 
damental difference between Mu‘tazilis and tliose who, like Ash‘ari, 
broke with them and rejected their doctrines. The Mu‘tazili 
expounds a grand principle which is impeccably rational; die 
Ash‘arite responds with gritty and indigestible particulars. (Ghazali 
was to prove a master of tliis strategy.) Doctrinal traps are set.The 
Ash‘arite will ask: if God is just and does what’s optimal, how do you 
explain the sufferings of innocent animals? They will be recom- 
pensed in t he hereafter, the Mu‘tazili blithely replies. Does this 
mean, the AslTarite shoots back, that every mosquito we swat, every 
bedbug we squash, will receive a reward in paradise? 

Ash‘ari died over a century before Ghazali’sbirth. Hehad adopted 
certain features of the Mu‘tazili tradition, most notably their meth- 
ods of argument, while rejecting some of t heir doctrinal principles. 
Or radier, he rejected them by turning t hem on t heir heads, as 
Ghazali would do later, in his own way. 

On the question of divine justice, the Ash‘arite solution was more 
drastic. For the Ash‘arites, neither good nor evil could be said to exist 
objectively. God is the creator of moral values; He defines justice as 
He wills.What He does is, perforce, just and good and right, however 
questionable it may appear to us. Truthfulness is not intrinsically 
good nor is lying bad. They are good or bad because God has 


determined them so. But God could command tomorrow that lying 
would be good and it would be good, just as He could command the 
rain to fall up instead of down. In the physical sphere as in the moral, 
no law of nature rules.The occurrence or non-occurrence of every- 
thing depends on t he sovereign will of God, instant by instant. 

Ghazali is ostensibly as anti-Mu‘tazili as his great founder; and 
yet, with his customary sly eclecticism, he is not impervious to 
all their arguments. He ridiculed the doctrine of the optimum but 
later, in key Sufi texts, he resurrected it for his own purposes, 
totally transformed, even if tlie taint of its origins would cling to his 


Philosophy, in Islam, represents a quite specific tradition.Theology, 
in some form or another, would undoubtedly have developed within 
Islam, but philosophy had a pre-Islamic origin. It came to Muslims 
through translations from Greek, first into Syriac and then into 
Arabic; such translations, beginning in the eighth century, continued 
to be made for some t hrcc hundred years.The word is itself foreign: 
the Arabicfalsafa is simply the Greek philosophia taken over entire, 
and a philosopher was a fajlasuf (plural falasifa). Moreover, philoso- 
phy, during the centuries in which it was steadily infiltrating the 
Islamic milieu, was resolutely Aristotelean, t liough modified by 
the Neo-Platonic tradition of almost a millennium. This elaborate 
hybrid tradition, not merely injected into Arabic and Islamic culture 
but creatively assimilated and elaborated by men of genius, from 
Kindi to Ibn Rushd, constituted philosophy for Ghazali. Other 
ancient currents were represented: Plotinus (though the extant 
portions of his Enneads were thought to be by Aristotle), Galen, 
Alexander of Aphrodisias, and Ammonius were all important, as 
were the more fragmentary remnants of Pythagorean, Stoic, 
Epicurean, and Democritan teachings. But it was overwhelmingly 
the neo-Platonic Aristotelianism of late antiquity — mediated by 


centuries of translation and interpretation and creatively transfig- 
ured by Kindi, Farabi, and Ibn Sina — which dominated. For Ghazali, 
dris tradition was appealing; its medrods, most especially dre reliance 
on demonstrative proof, in the form of syllogisms, held out the pos- 
sibility of a higher and more compelling discourse than drat provided 
by Kalam. At dre same time, he roundly rejected those tenets of dre 
philosophers, such as the eternity of dre world, which he deemed 
heretical. In dealing with falsafa, Ghazali found himself, as he said, in 
dre position of the skilled snake-handler who must extract poison for 
useful purposes. I shall deal widr dris in more detail — and in particu- 
lar, widr Ghazali’s complex interactions with jalsaja — in Chapter 


The Isma‘ilis, a group from an opposed tradition, during Ghazali’s 
lifetime represented a considerable threat in the shape of the Fatimid 
Dynasty which was based in Cairo.The Fatimids were powerful rivals 
to dre Seljuqs in political and nrilitary terms but drey also constituted 
a subtler and more pervasive nrenace. According to tradition (drough 
dreir activities are attested only fronr a century later), dre Isma‘ilis 
had seceded from mainstream Shi‘ism upon the death of the Imam 
Ja’far al-Sadiq in 762, over dre question of succession to dre Imamate. 
Those who would become “Isma‘ilis” advocated dre Imamate of 
Ja’far’s son, Isma’il. They further upheld a line of seven Imams — 
hence, dreir designation as “Seveners”— whereas other Shi‘ites, the 
“Twelvers” (dre nrajority of Shi‘ites in present-day Iran and Iraq), 
postulated a series of twelve. To the Twelvers, dre Isma‘ilis were 
heretics (bodr factions are considered heretics by Sunnis). 

Late in dre ninth century, the Isma‘ilis began sending out propa- 
gandists and missionaries to every corner of the Islanric world, to 
proselytize and spread the faith.These missionaries (da‘is inArabic), 
ranged far and wide. They had penetrated Klrorasan well before 
Ghazali’s birth. (In his autobiography, Ibn Sina, who died sonre 


twenty years before Ghazali was born, mentions that one such pro- 
pagandist came to his house while he was quite young and succeeded 
in converting both his father and his brother, though he rejected the 
call.) Under die Fatimids, t liis proselytizing activity became institu- 
tionalized in a designated ministry and its agents routinely infiltrated 
the Seljuq domains. Isma‘ili activities posed a genuine danger. Small 
wonder that thc Caliph Mustazhir would commission Ghazali to 
write anti-Isma‘ili polemics to counter the threat, an episode I shall 
discuss further in Chapter Five. 

The danger was not solely doctrinal. A breakaway group of 
Isma‘ilis (afterwards known as the Nizaris), supporters of Nizar for 
the Fatimid Caliphate, engaged in targeted assassinations of adver- 
saries.These Isma‘ilis, ensconced in their mountain stronghold of 
Alamut and under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabah, the “Old Man of 
the Mountain,”were the dreaded“Assassins”of Marco Polo, and later 
became well-known to the Crusaders, whom t hcy harried effec- 
tively. (There is a fanciful legend tliat in tlieir youtli, Ghazali and 
Hasan-i Sabah, and the mathematician, philosopher, and poet Umar 
Khayyam, rubbed convivial shoulders, but this is clearly apoc- 
ryphal.)The mortal danger posed by the Nizaris was brought home 
when Ghazali’s patron, the vizier Nizam al-Mulk, became the victim, 
on October 14, 1092, of a Nizari assassin’s dagger. (It is sometimes 
suggested diat Malik Shah, the Seljuq Sultan who had long chafed 
under the dominance of his manipulative vizier, instigated his mur- 
der; if so, he reaped no benefit from the deed: he died a mondi after 
Nizam al-Mulk.) 

For Ghazali, the Isma‘ilis constituted a political danger, but it was 
their doctrines that he especially sought to counter. He opposed their 
emphasis on a hidden (or esoteric) series of truths known only to the 
Imam, and objected to the corollary of this notion; t hat tr ut h might 
be transmitted only on the authority of an Imam.This smacked too 
closely of “belief based on audiority,” or taqlid, which he had suc- 
ceeded in shaking off. In addition, it undermined reason and worse, 
it narrowed the path to truth , confining it to t hose with privileged 
access. We’ll come back to these, and further, objections to 


Isma‘ilism later, when we consider Ghazali’s fourfold division of tlae 
ways to truth, as outlined in his autobiography. 


By Ghazali’s time, Sufism had a long history.The Arabic word for tliis 
distinctive form of Islamic mysticism is tasawwuj, which derives from 
tlie word for “wool” ( suj ), presumably an allusion to the coarse 
woollen garments favored by the first Sufis. These early masters, 
emerging in the early eighth century, were ascetics, much given to 
fasting, wakefulness, constant prayer and meditation, and voluntary 
poverty.The tales of their exploits, tribulations, visions and insights, 
make up much of Sufi literature, and Ghazali draws on them liberally. 
The Ihja’ abounds in vivid and pithy anecdotes of tlaese saints.Their 
sayings and actions, as extravagant as thcy are enigmatic, provide a 
dramatic illustration of model behaviour for the aspiring mystic, and 
Ghazali often introduces such tales to clinch a point. He could draw 
on a rich body of literature which he exploited to the hilt, ransacking 
compilations from a century or so before along witla those of his 
older contemporary, tlie great Ash‘arite theologian and mystic, 

From such elements, both those which he accepted — Shafi‘ite 
jurisprudence, Ash‘arite theology, and Sufi theory and practise — 
and those which he rejected — Mu‘tazili doctrine and Aristotelian 
philosophy — Ghazali fashioned a new and compelling system of 
t hought and action. I don’t want to present him as a rigid champion 
of official orthodoxies, whether legal or theological. He is the heir of 
shadier tendencies too, and t hesc peep out, often unexpectedly, in 
die midst of unimpeachable discourse. They include not only t he 
protracted tradition of philosophical skepticism (which he is often 
said to have brought to an end, but of which he was once — and in a 
certain sense remained — a bold exponent), but also the whole 
unruly, exploratory, suspect and at times dissident Iranian tradition 
that flourished in thc century or so before his birth. Outwardly, 


Ghazali seems the very antithesis of tliis tendency, but his intellectual 
restlessness, as well as his independence of mind, suggest otherwise. 
There are references to disreputable mystics such as Hallaj, executed 
for blasphemy in 922, whom Ghazali admired, sometimes quite 
openly (Ormsby 2000, 58).There are clear influences from tradi- 
tions which he publicly repudiated and combated, such as t he 
Mu‘tazili and t he Isma‘ili. Early critics criticized him for a too-close 
familiarity witla such crypto-Isma‘ili works as the Epistles of tlae 
Brethren of Purity, a work which, he tells us in his autobiography, he 
had studied; he clearly borrowed from it in later works (Hodgson, 2 : 
18 1-1 84; de Callatay, 109). 

Ghazali’s honorific was “The Proof of Islam,” a title by which he is 
still known today. But the “proof” was composed of many elements. 
Chief among these was t he place ofhis origins, the now-vanished city 
of Tus, in the north-eastern province of Iran, Khorasan. 



On November 18, 1933, t he English traveller Robert Byron visited 
the shrine ofMashhad and the ruins of nearbyTus. Inhis classic work, 
The Road to Oxiana, he described die site: 

Mounds and ridges betray the outlines of the old city. An antique 
bridge of eight arches spans the river. And a massive domed mau- 
soleum, whose brick is the colour of dead rose-leaves, stands up 
against the blue mountains. No one knows whom this commemorated; 
though from its resemblance to the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar at 
Merv, it seems to have been built in the XIIth century. It alone survives 
of the splendours of Tus. 

Flanked by mountain ranges to the north and the great desert to thc 
south,Tus was a bustling and prestigious city until its destruction by 
the Mongols in 1220. Its most illustrious son was the poet Firdawsi, 
who was born in t hc nearby village of Razan and died there at an 
advanced age in 1025 ; his tomb has remained a site of veneration for 
almost a millennium. In tlie tenth century,Tus was tlic second most 
important town of Khorasan after Nishapur, and was famed for prod- 
ucts such as stone jars made of serpentine, for gold, silver, copper 
and iron, and for semi-precious gemstones such as turquoise and 
malachite.The area had a lively export trade, particularly of such lux- 
uries as truffles and “edible earth,” a strange greenish clay, used for 



Tus was an amalgam of two towns, Nuqan andTabaran, and bene- 
fited from its proximity to die great garden in the village of 
Sanabadh, where bot h t hc Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid and t hc 
eighth Imam oftheTwelver Shi’ah‘Ali al-Rida lay entombed. (Shi‘ite 
pilgrims customarily kicked t lie Caliphs tomb, while calling down 
blessings on die Imam’s.) Whatever lustre thc ruins ofTus now pos- 
sess comes from the magnificent shrine of the Imam at Mashhad, still 
t he object of pilgrimage and fervent veneration. 

Firdawsi had been dead for almost thirty years when, in 1 05 8 , Abu 
Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al- 
Ghazali, later to be crowned with t hc honorific “The Proof of Islam,” 
was born in a nearby village. His origins remain obscure. According 
to some accounts,he came from a family of poor butrespectable gen- 
try; according to others, he came from a line of scholars and jurists; 
according to yet another, his father was a radier austere Sufi. He had 
a younger brother, Ahmad Ghazali (d. 1 126), who became a cele- 
brated preacher and an induential Sufi theorist in his own right. But 
we know almost nothing of his background. 

Even his name is a puzzle. Should it be spelled “Ghazzali” or 
“Ghazali”? According to t hc biographer Ibn Khallikan, born a century 
later, die double z, redecting die use of the people of Klrwarizm and 
Jurjan, is analogous with such names as Qassari or ‘Attari, that is, a 
name drawn from a profession, such as“fuller” ( qassar ) or“perfumer” 
(‘attar); in this case, the name would derive from the profession of 
“spinner” ( ghazzal ), but it may come from thc place-name Ghazala, a 
village nearTus (Ibn Khallikan, 1 :82).The latter — and more likely — 
form is commonly accepted and Tll use it here. 

Ghazali was and remained a cliild of Khorasan, the nordr-eastern 
Iranian province of legendary troublemakers and mavericks; from 
here came the armies which overthrew the Umayyad Dynasty in t he 
740s and established die long-lived reign of die Abbasids, founders of 
die city of Baghdad in 762.When the Spanish philosopher IbnTufayl 
sought to express his scorn for Ghazali, he referred to him as “t hat 
fellow fromTus” and dre phrase suggests a disdain tliat goes beyond 
the merely philosophical. 


Tus, where Ghazali’s roots lay, was a savagely contested city, 
where dreadful massacres had taken place in 1034, some twenty 
years before his birth. In that year,Tus declared war on Nishapur, but 
was defeated.The governor of the neighboring province of Kirman, 
who intervened with his cavalry, had 20,000 citizens of Tus rounded 
up, whom he “crucified on trees and along the roads” ( EI 2 , 10:742). 
The region suffered otlaer upheavals: Nishapur, where Ghazali would 
later study, experienced a severe eartliquake in 1145 and in 1 1 53, a 
few years before his birth, the city was sacked and virtually destroyed 
by maraudingTurks. In 1038, the SeljuqTughril Bey had appeared in 
Tus witla his forces, prompting the Ghaznavid Sultan Mas’ud to 
mount“a fast female elephant and set out forTus with a detachment 
of the army,” according to one chronicler (Nishapuri, 37) . 

The troubled region offered opportunities to the venturesome. 
This was not only because the Seljuq regime sought out promising 
young scholars to promote its doctrinal agenda — a program which 
benefited Ghazali at the outset of his career — but also because the 
area had long had a rich intellectual and spiritual history. It was espe- 
cially propitious for mysticism; many of the saints and mystics whom 
Ghazali would later quote and hold up as models came from 
Khorasan, including such ecstatic Sufis as AbuYazid Bistami (d. 877), 
whose wild sayings included the shocking “Glory be to me!” (a for- 
mulation normally reserved for God), to tlie popular and much- 
loved Abu Sa’id ibn abi’l-Khayr (d. 1049), who had once stayed in 
Tus. Khorasan“came to be known as the land whose product is saints” 
(Keeler, 107). In this context, Ghazali’s later embrace of Sufism sug- 
gests a return to his spiritual roots. And it was toTus, as well as to 
Nishapur, that he would actually return, as to his homeland, in the 
committed Sufi phase of his later years. 

Sufism certainly prospered in Khorasan before and after Ghazali 
but in other areas of endeavor diere seems to have been a strong 
sense of spiritual stagnation, of decline botla in piety and learning. A 
generation earlier, another native, tlie great Persian poet, traveller, 
and Fatimid agent Nasir-i Khosraw ( 1 004—1 089?) lamented its fallen 
state in one of liis odes: 


The land of Khorasan once was culture’s abode 
But now has become a pit of sordid devils. 

Balkh was wisdom’s own dwellinsj-place but now 

That habitation has turned to waste-land and capsized sjrandeur. 

How has Khorasan, once the dominion of Solomon, 

Now become a kinsjdom of devils accursed? 

Divan, 79 

Nasir-i Khosraw, as an Isma‘ili, had doctrinal as well as political axes 
to grind — his “devils” are none other than t he SeljuqTurks — and yet, 
it isn’t religious deviation that he laments but the decline in culture, 
learning, and “wisdom” ( hikmat : another term for philosophy). 
Among the Seljuqs, tlie prevailing sentiment was that tlie region was 
in spiritual and cultural disarray. A firm desire to re-assert “ortho- 
doxy” (in Sunni form), along with an energetic reforming impulse in 
areas such as education, characterized tlie dynasty from its begin- 
nings. Ghazali shared t h i s zeal. It echoes in his lifelong calls for revival 
— tlie very term emphasized in the title of his masterpiece — as well 
as in his stated ambition to become the “renewer of religion” for his 
own age . 


Ghazali died in 1111, at the age of fifty-three or fifty-four. It has 
become customary to divide his life into four or five significant 
stages, with 1095 as a crucial demarcation (Bouyges, 6). In this year, 
as we know, he experienced the breakdown which changed his life 
utterly and led him to Sufism. (I describe tliis crisis in more detail in 
Chapter Five.)These stages are: 

Early years (1058—1085): encompassing his childhood and early 
education, as well as his first writings on law; in these years he stud- 
ied with various masters in Jurjan and Nishapur; the period ended 
with the death of Juwayni , his greatest teacher, in 1085. 

The “public” decade (1085—1095) found him teaching at t he 
Nizamiyya madrasa in Baghdad and enjoying the patronage of Nizam 


al-Mulk, which gave him standing at both the Caliph’s and the 
Sultans court; during these years he wrote his first mature works on 
law, philosophy and logic, polemic and dogmatics. 

The crisis and withdrawal from public life ( 1 095—1 1 06) : t liese are 
the years following his breakdown when he embraced Sufism and left 
Baghdad for years of seclusion and wandering, first in Damascus, 
then in Jerusalem; he performed the pilgrimage; in the first two 
years, he composed die lhya’ , his masterpiece, as well as several other 
works on mysticism in both Arabic and Persian, along with his“Book 
of Counsel for Kings” (in Persian). 

His second “public” period (1 106—1 109) saw Ghazali teaching in 
Nishapur; he wrote his autobiography, die Munqidh min al-dalal, and 
his final great work on legal theory; he acted as spiritual advisor to 
aspiring Sufis. 

In his final years (1 109—1 1 1 1) of renewed retreat and seclusion, 
he reportedly established a Sufi “convent” and wrote works on escha- 
tology and theology, the latter completed just days before his death in 
December 1111. 

In diis book, I will follow these stages loosely. In this chapter, for 
example, I touch on certain significant aspects of his early training 
and experience; in later chapters I will return to what seem to me the 
biographical factors most pertinent to an understanding of his 
thought. There is a reason for diis erratic approach: a division into 
neat stages offers a convenient approach to a complex life; neverdie- 
less, it is one which Ghazali probably would have rejected. Seen from 
outside, his life has swerves and detours; seen from within, it follows 
a hidden trajectory, wida seemingly inevitable momentum. Perhaps 
this is how it presented itself to the eye of inner recollection when he 
came to write his spiritual autobiography, some time between 1106 
and 1 109. Not a series of fits and starts but a course dictated by the 
search for certainty, which disclosed its deepest coherence only after 
that certainty had been found. What is striking about Ghazali is that 
while he saw his life as broken in two by his terrible crisis, in retro- 
spect he discovered an inner logic, a compelling momentum, in the 
course of his career, when viewed with t he “eyes of dae heart.” Seen 


t luis, tlie earlier stages, when he struggled blindly towards tlie trutli, 
oddly prefigured and mirrored the later.To give one example: in his 
early scepticism Ghazali questioned the reliability of tlie senses, but 
in his later, altered perspective, the senses themselves, mysteriously 
transfigured, proved to be the touchstones of truth. Taste, the least 
communicable of the senses, offered the final certainty, serving as a 
metaphor for tlie ultimate mystical experience. 


Ghazali was orphaned early; however, his fat her left enough money 
for him to begin t hc study of law under the Imam and Sufi master 
Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Radhakani (or Radkani) inTus while still 
a child. This scholar came from the village of Radkan, which lies 
“halfway between Khabushan andTus” (LeStrange, 394). Radkan was 
also the birthplace of the vizier Nizam al-Mulk, later Ghazali’s 
patron. Such regional connections with tlre learned and the powerful 
among die “Tusian mafia” would remain a constant in Ghazali’s later 

Somewhat later, Ghazali travelled to Jurjan to sit at the feet of t ht- 
Imam Abu N asr al-Isma ‘ili. Around thc same time he studied with t he 
Sufi master Ahmad ‘Ali al-Farmadhi, anothcr scholar fromTus, who 
reportedly had studied under Ghazali’s father. Farmadhi, once a 
pupil of Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, the renowned AslTarite theolo- 
gian and Sufi master, was himself a quite eminent Sufi whose early 
influence on Ghazali seems to have been profound. FIe mentions him 
with great respect twice, once without directly naming him in his 
anti-Isma‘ili polemic, the Mustazhiri (Goldziher 1916, 30 and 108), 
and later explicitly, in his treatise on the divine names ( Maqsad , 162). 
Even Nizam al-Mulk — no respecter of persons — honored Farmadhi. 
According to tlie chronicler Ibn al-Athir, whenever Qushayri or 
Juwayni came into Nizam al-Mulk’s presence, the vizier would rise 
to greet them, only to return quickly to his seat but: 


when Abu Ali al-Farmadhi came in, he would rise to receive him, seat 
him where he himsell had been, and take his seat before him.This 
was remarked on to him, and he said, “The first two and their like, 
when they come into my presence say to me, ‘ You are such and such,’ 
and they praise me for what is not in me.Their words increase my 
self-satisfaction and pride.The latter shaykh tells me of my soul’s faults 
and how wicked I am. My spirit is thereby humbled and I recoil from 
much of what I am doinsj.” 

Ibn al-Athir, 257 

In his later years, Ghazali too would speak with frankness to figures of 
aut hority, inspired no doubt by the example of tliis master of liis youth . 


Ghazali’s first decisive opportunity occurred in 1077, when he was 
around nineteen, when he joined t h c circle of tlie illustrious theolo- 
gian and jurist Abu al-Ma’ali al-Juwayni in Nishapur.Though Ghazali 
had been introduced to Sufi teaching at an early age, tlie influence of 
the formidable Juwayni, one of the greatest figures in the history of 
Islamic theology, proved more decisive in the short term, and it was 
as a jurist and theologian that Ghazali first came to prominence and 
won powerful patronage. 

Juwayni was at the height ofhis influence during Ghazali’s student 
years.Though he had once taken refuge for four years in Mecca and 
Medina as a result of a factional dispute in which the anti-Ash‘arite 
Seljuq vizier Kunduri played a part, his fortunes changed radically 
after Nizam al-Mulk — the rival vizier who later contrived to have 
Kunduri executed — instated an Ash‘arite agenda and furthered the 
establishment of “colleges,” or madrasas, dedicated to Ash‘arite 
and Shafi‘ite principles. Juwayni, who had earned tlie honorific 
“Imam of the Two Sacred Shrines” (Mecca and Medina) during his 
exile, now basked in official favor. If his early biographers are to be 
believed, Ghazali soon became a star pupil. His quickness of mind 
dazzled his fellow students. Even Juwayni, not lavish with praise, 


called him“a sea to drown in,”a standard compliment with a bit of an 
edge: though his teacher bragged about Ghazali, he is said secretly to 
have resented him. In an interesting prefiguration of Ghazali’s own 
later distrust of theology, Juwayni, who died in 1085, is reported 
to have turned in his final years to “the religion of the old women,” 
simple unquestioning piety ratlier than the pyrotechnics of dialectic. 
This is probably apocryphal; it is a well-known topos. Shortly before 
his deada, St.Thomas Aquinas supposedly experienced a vision which 
showed him that his theological labours amounted to nothing but 
“straw,” and in the Islamic world, the later AslTarite tlieologian Fakhr 
al-Din al-Razi (d. 1 209) reportedly repented of liis lifelong devotion 
to theology on his death-bed. 

Juwayni was a more rigorous thinker than his pupil. His theologi- 
cal works, especially his monumental Irshad, are characterized by 
precise formulations and tightly-constructed arguments.Throughout 
his technical works on theology and law, Ghazali followed his exam- 
ple, even as he refined and elaborated his master’s methods, particu- 
larly by the introduction of forms of argument drawn from 
Aristotelian logic. In this respect, Ghazali’s treatises furthered tlae 
development of a new form of theology destined to become 
dominant in tlie Sunni world; the construction of systematic, all- 
encompassing compendia, similar to the summae of scholastic theolo- 
gians in the medieval Christian tradition. 

But Juwayni’s legacy to Ghazali was not only formal. Certain fun- 
damental principles link them, however much, in his later years, dae 
pupil diverged from the master’s practise and example. One princi- 
ple, articulated in Juwayni ’s Irshad, is that “knowledge is the recogni- 
tion of the thingknownas it really is”(Juwayni, 8). (The formulation 
resembles the earlier philosopher Kindi’s dictum, drawn from Greek 
diought, diat philosophy entails “a knowledge of the true natures of 
diings in so far as this is possible to man .”) Ghazali restates this prin- 
ciple in the opening chapter of die lhya’ (1:41). In elucidating dae 
point, Juwayni points out that such knowledge is not simply “convic- 
tion accompanied by a feeling of certitude.” An ignoramus can feel 
certain ofhis conviction, buthe isn’tknowledgeable; a simple person 


can claim to know something on the authority of another, but this too 
isn’t truly knowledge, because it does not guarantee certainty. 
“Certainty” ( jaqin in Arabic) poses its own problems, not only in 
terms of how it may be attained but also of how it may be recognized 
when attained. Can certainty be gained through dialectic or through 
demonstrative reasoning or must it inevitably come through the 
guidance of a divinely inspired authority?The question would preoc- 
cupy Ghazali intensely in later years. Genuine knowledge involves 
recognition of what actually is in both the temporal and the eternal 
realms; it avoids mere supposition as well as fancy. In his Mi‘yar al- 
‘ilm (Bouyges, 18), the treatise on logic, probably written towards 
the end of 1095, he defines “certain knowledge” as occurring when 
“you know that a thing with such-and-such a characteristic corre- 
sponds to a proposition about it in such a way that it cannot not be 
thus” ( Miyar , 180). The foundation of Ghazali’s emphasis on cer- 
tainty rests on this bedrock. (The further problem of how you know 
that you know a certainty remains, and he would later tackle it.) 
Nevertheless, an exacting knowledge of actuality at its utmost would 
form his lifelong goal, even if the way to such knowledge remained 
problematic for a long time. 


Ghazali’s brilliance caught the attention of a powerful patron. At 
some point after 1085, he joined the Sultans camp-court, where 
Nizam al-Mulk welcomed him. According to his earliest biographer, 
his former student Abd al-Ghafir al-Farisi, Nizam al-Mulk was inter- 
ested in Ghazali largely because of “his excellence in disputation and 
his command of language.” In the vizier’s assemblies, Ghazali 
encountered“. . . tough adversaries. He disputed witli luminaries and 
debated the distinguished. Thus, his name became known far and 
wide” (‘Uthman, 42). 

The encounter was to prove auspicious in other ways. Nizam 
al-Mulk arranged for Ghazali to be appointed to the Nizamiyya 


madrasa of Baghdad, one of a network of nine schools which he estab- 
lished during the dynasty (and which bore his name), to inculcate 
Ash‘arite theology and Shafi‘ite law; others were founded in Balkla, 
Mawsil, Marw, and Nishapur. Ghazali became a popular teacher, 
revered by his pupils; he boasted of classes tliree hundred-strong. 
According to Farisi, his erstwhile student, Ghazali’s “teaching and 
disputation delighted everyone, and after holding the Imamate of 
Khurasan he became the Imam of Iraq.” 

The title of Imam, which literally denotes the leader of prayer in a 
mosque, has a long history in Islam. For Sunni Muslims, the first 
Caliphs — especially Abu Bakr and ‘Umar — were Imams par excel- 
lence, embodying spiritual as well as political autliority. The Caliph, 
in his role as Imam, was the prayer-leader of the community; he was 
also obliged to deliver t h c Friday sermon, or khutba. But over time, 
as the power of the caliphate weakened, the Caliph’s representatives 
— regional governors and other designated officials — could act as 
Imams in his stead ( EI 2 6:674). 

Among Shi‘ites, by contrast, the Imamate has a wholly different 
significance; the “Imami” Shi‘ites postulate a line of twelve Imams, 
all of whom are considered both sinless and infallible, as well 
as endowed with supernatural knowledge and power. For t hc 
Isma‘ilis ^ “Sevener” Shi‘ites as opposed to the “Twelver” tradition 
of the Imamis — only seven quasi-prophetic leaders are recognized, 
tliough the Caliphs of tlie Fatimids, the powerful Isma‘ili dynasty 
in Egypt which I mentioned earlier, were also reckoned as Isma‘ili 
Imams. In Ghazali’s case, his office represented an extension of 
caliphal spiritual authority. Like liis teacher Juwayni, tlie “Imam of 
the Two Holy Shrines,” Ghazali the Imam would have been 
responsible for Shafi‘ite ritual practise, first in Khorasan and tlien 
in all Iraq; his duties would have included supervision of public 
prayer and the administration of mosques. The position brought 
Ghazali prestige, and he enjoyed it, as he frankly admits in his 



In 1092, on t he death of the Sultan Malik Shah, t hc Caliph Muqtadi 
informed the Sultan’s shrewd and scheming widow,Turkun Khatun, 
that her four-year-old son Mahmud would succeed his fatlier as Sultan 
in name alone, with real power invested in t he vizier, Unur ( EI 2 
8:942). She objected to this arrangement (which was probably engi- 
neered by Nizam al-Mulk’s son, a bitter enemy). Ghazali was sent to 
persuade her; his autlioritative statement, “your son is young and the 
Law does not allow him to be ruler”proved unanswerable. Somewhat 
later, on tlie deatlr of the Caliph Muqtadi in 1 093, we find Ghazali pre- 
sent at the investiture of his successor, tlie sixteen-year-old who took 
the throne-title al-Mustazhir bi-Allah. Ghazali stood alongside such 
notables as t hc vizier, as well as “thc Sultans emirs and all t hc holders 
ofoffices ... with thcir retinues, ancl tlic chief qadi” (Ibn al- Athir, 273). 
As a high-ranking member of dre ‘ulama ’ , Ghazali offered condolences 
to t hc new Caliph on dre deadr of his fathcr and took die oat h of alle- 
giance, togedier widr odrer dignitaries. Such glimpses give a sense of 
the privileged and induential role Ghazali played during his Baghdad 
years. As he admitted later, t his role was immensely gratifying. 

The place of scholars at thc Seljuq — and Abbasid — courts was well- 
established. Nizam al-Mulk articulated diis in liis Book oj Government or 
RulesJorKings, an early masterpiece of Persian prose, inpassages such as: 

It is incumbent upon the king to enquire into religious matters, to be 
acquainted with the divine precepts and prohibitions and put them into 
practise, and to obey the commands of God; it is his duty to respect 
doctors of religion and pay their salaries out of the treasury, and he 
should honor pious and abstemious men. Furthermore it is fitting that 
once or twice a week he should invite religious elders to his presence 
and hear from them the commands of TheTruth . . . During that time 
he should free his mind from worldly cares and give his ears and 
attention to them. Let him bid them take sides and hold a debate, and 
let him ask questions about what he does not understand; when he has 
learnt the answers let him commit them to memory. 

Nizam al-Mulk, 59—60 


He continues, “Holding consultations on affairs is a sign of sound 
judgment, high intelligence and foresight.” Ghazali would have 
agreed.The scholar was t he tlieological conscience of t he sovereign. 
In liis admonitory treatise to the Sultan, we read that: 

The ruler should be always thirstinsj to meet devout ‘ ulama’ and ask 
them for advice; and . . . he should beware of meeting ‘ulama’ with 
worldly ambitions who might inveigle, Aatter and seek to please him in 
order to gain control over his terrestrial body by stealth and deceit. 

The devout ‘alim is not one who has covetous designs on the treasury, 
but one who gives his knowledge in just measure. 

Nasihat , 19 

Though dae second part of t he treatise has been incorrectly ascribed 
to Ghazali (Crone, 167—192), this advice comes from the first, 
apparently genuine, segment of the work.The passage is noteworthy 
not only because of the emphasis Ghazali places on tlie religious 
scholar’s official role — and tlae gravity of his tone lifts it above dae 
self-serving — but because of the caution he expresses; already daat 
disillusionment widi t lie scholarly class, which forms so harsh a 
dieme in his later writings, is coming through loud and clear. 

Official favor and its attendant prestige agreed with Ghazali. His 
ten or so years of public life were years of great productivity. His 
large and varied output, ranging from treatises on law to densely 
argued expositions and critiques of philosophy, from disquisitions on 
formal logic to austere manuals of dieology and vigorous polemics, 
show that he was not exaggerating when later, in his autobiography, 
he described himself with becoming immodesty as a bold diver into 
die deepest seas of knowledge. 


The crisis of 1095 produced a changed man.Whatever inner coher- 
ence Ghazali might have discerned in h i s progress, t he person who 
emerged from die ordeal of t h a t year stood in obvious contrast to his 


earlier self . For this , we have not only his own testimony but also that 
of his pupils. The transformation was most conspicuous in a single 
way: the young Ghazali had been driven by a thirst for truth but 
intense ambition drove him as well. Preferment, standing at court, 
social prestige, intellectual celebrity — these lures drew him and held 
him fast. Sufis identified such ambition with the quest for “place,” 
employing tlie Persian word jah (which might be translated as “sta- 
tus,” with all tliat implies today). In the Ihja’, he devotes a chapter to 
status, in which he treats it as a vice and worse, an obstacle to salva- 
tion. Ghazali equates it with possessiveness: it is an attempt to own, 
not property, but the hearts of others; the status-conscious man 
manipulates others for his own ends, he is gluttonous for deference. 
As he says, “status and acquisitiveness are the twin pillars of this lower 
world.” He knew whereof he spoke: ambition and love of status 
proved Ghazali’s most troublesome hindrance on the Sufi path. 
Overcoming them consumed tlie last sixteen years of his life. 

The works of Ghazali ’s busy “public” decade, whether in theology, 
logic, or philosophy, form the foundation on which his later mystical 
thought firmly rests. In the next three chapters I will look at several 
of his most characteristic and significant writings from drose years; 
some of these were composed in the immediate aftermadr of t h c cri- 
sis — the demarcations of such a life cannot be tidy — but all had t heir 
origins in this decade. From certain disciplines, such as philosophy, 
Ghazali would pluck what was useful and benign while casting away 
what he considered harmful; others, such as logic or dialectical the- 
ology, would prove of more limited usefulness to him on t hc Sufi 
path.Theology in particular, for a variety of reasons, would continue 
to vex him to tlie end of his life, while t he law would prove the main- 
stay of his career from beginning to end. 


T he constant in Ghazali’s intellectual career is not to be found in 
“the quest for certainty” (as he himself claimed) or in t hc hurly- 
burly of dialectic or in tlie first principles of philosophy or even in t hc 
ineffable trutlis of Sufism, but rather, in his lifelong commitment to 
the law, and specifically, to the practise and theory of jurisprudence 
according to the tenets of the Shafi‘ite school. Whatever liis various 
excursions into almost every intellectual current of his time, it was 
with law that he began and with law that he ended. He trained as a 
jurist ( JaqJh ) ; it was in this capacity that he first attracted the patron- 
age and support of the powerful. His earliest compositions (now 
lost) were four teclmical treatises on metliods of legal debate, writ- 
ten before 1086 (Hourani, 291); he regularly wrote and issued judi- 
cial rulings, orjatwas. Even during the busy decade of involvement at 
the Nizamiyya college, he found time to compile a huge book on the- 
oretical jurisprudence (now lost), Instruction in Legal Principles. And 
his last major work, extant and published in two dense volumes, 
addressed tlae theoretical principles of law.This highly technical trea- 
tise, al-Mustasfa min ‘ilm al-usul, was completed on August 5, 1 109, a 
mere two years before his death. 


Ghazali ’s contributions to the development of Islamic law have not 
yet been sufficiently studied; though he continued and extended the 



path marked out earlier by Juwayni, some of his initiatives were inno- 
vative. Ghazali was the first to introduce Aristotelian logic into dis- 
cussions of theoretical jurisprudence (Hallaq, 39 — 4-0), even if that 
had little immediate effect. In his prescriptions for the time-honored 
injunction, fundamental to Islam, to “command the right and forbid 
t he wrong,” Ghazali exerted lasting influence. His expositions of this 
topic, especially in the Ihja’, exhibit a scope and subtlety far beyond 
anything of which his predecessors, including Juwayni, were capable. 
His arguments shaped most subsequent discussions in t he Shafi‘ite 
tradition. As Michael Cook has shown, he not only devised new ter- 
minology but also organized legal discourse in a new and compelling 
manner. One impressive side-aspect of his achievement is its breadtli; 
as Cook notes, “It is rare for a scholar to tell us whether it is incum- 
bent on slaves and women to forbid wrong, and still more so for him 
to mention peasants, Beduin, Kurds and Turcomans” (Cook, 449). 
Such inclusiveness, especially with regard to women, is characteristic 
of the mature Ghazali. However, his method is also remarkable. He 
brings great sensitivity to human psychology to his treatment of legal 
issues, and his shrewd perceptions give unexpected depth to other- 
wise technical discussions. As we’ll see, after his commitment to 
Sufism, Ghazali would apply such insight to virtually every sphere of 
human endeavor; in his teclmical discourses on jurisprudence tlais is 
all the more striking because so unprecedented. 

Ghazali’s lifelong commitment to law must be understood in con- 
text. As he acknowledged, mastery of tlie law remained important, 
bo th because it was meritorious in itself and, less loTtily, because it 
enabled him to make a living.Towards the end of his life, he put it thus : 

A specialization in this subject claimed me in the first tlush of my youth 
because of its merits in both this world and the next, as well as the 
rewards of the life to come.Thus, it is fitting that I devote my heart to 
it in the time remaining to me and that I apportion to it a measure of 
what life is left to me. I have written many books on law — its theory as 
well as its practise — after which I turned to the Path of the Afterlife 
and the hidden secrets of religion. 

Mustasja, 1 : B 


Ghazali revered t hc study of law but like theology, it could not pro- 
duce that final certainty he sought; that was neither its province nor 
its purpose. And yet, somewhat to his own surprise, the law did lead 
him to God. He remarked later,“We became students for t h c sake of 
something else than God, but He was unwilling that it should be for 
the sake of anything but Himself” (Macdonald, 75).The law was his 
profession and he practised its skills to sustain himself and liis family. 
But law also gave him the intellectual rigor and metliod to pursue the 
truth beyond its purlieus; it grounded him firmly in a reasoned grasp 
of the actual. His legal training and practise accorded well witli his 
pronounced pragmatic streak and that in turn tinged even his more 
transcendent tendencies. His exposition of the Sufi way is marked 
throughout with the cautions of common sense. 


The use of analogy as a tool of legal reasoning distinguished the 
Shafi‘ite school from the beginning. Analogy entailed drawing out 
the implications of a broader ruling, as found in tlic Qur’an or the 
traditions, by applying ijtihad, or“mental effort.”As Shafi‘i explained 
in his Kisala : 

On all matters affecting a Muslim, there is either a binding decision or 
an indication as to the right answer. Ii there is a decision, it should be 
followed; if there is no indication as to the right answer, it should be 
sought by “mental effor t,” and mental effort is “analogy.” 

Shafi‘i, 288; tr. Khadduri; modiiied 

For example, if wine is forbidden explicitly (as in Qur. 2:219), what 
is the status of a milder drink, such as nabidh or“palm wine?”It too is 
forbidden, for when we examine tlie underlying reason for the pro- 
hibition on wine, we realize that it is prohibited because it intoxi- 
cates. Intoxication is the factor which determines the prohibition; it 
is the “cause” (‘ illa in legal parlance, what in Western legal theory 
would be termed t he ratio legis, the reason for the law). Palm wine 


intoxicates; tlierefore, by analogy, it too is prohibited, hence the 
formula: “All palm wine is intoxicating, therefore all palm wine is 
forbidden” (Brunschvig, 61). 

In Shafi‘ite legal dieory, analogy falls into several categories.The 
term is also used, by Ghazali and others, to translate the Greek“syl- 
logism.” But legal analogy is not, and cannot be, expresssive of an 
absolute truth in the same way as can a logical proof, as Ghazali 
recognized. Over t he course of his career, he would come to define 
analogy and its uses rather rnore narrowly; at the same time, he 
would mix legal and logical discourse ever more freely, often 
employing examples drawn from jurisprudence in his expositions of 
Aristotelean logic. In his technical works on law, theology or logic, 
Ghazali was rigorous in his use of analogy. For example, in Qur. 
17:23, kindness to one ’s parents is commanded in tliese words : 

If either or both of them reach old age with you, say no word that 
shows impatience with them, and do not be harsh with them, but speak 
to them respectlully and, out of mercy, lower your wing in humility 
towards them and say, “Lord, have mercy on them, just as they cared 
for me when I was little.” 

tr. Abdel Halim, 176 

May we infer from t his that if speaking harshly to a father or motlier 
is prohibited, then striking either of them must also be? The case 
seems obvious but the question is whether tliis represents a valid 
analogy, and Ghazali says tlrat it does not. In his Mankhulji ‘ilm al-usul 
(Bouyges, 2), an early work, he argues that “both the context and dre 
circumstances necessitate drawing this inference decisively” 
(Brunsclwig, 62).The formulation of analogy cannot be immediate; 
it requires a modicum of careful reflection. 

Nevertheless, Ghazali relies on analogy of a less rigorous sort 
throughout his work.The use of analogy characterizes liis Sufi writ- 
ings, where it crops up repeatedly as a form of analogical intuition. 
As in the legal process, in which qiyas must be the result of methodi- 
cal consideration, so too, in the mystical path, meditation, contem- 
plation, and reflection all must precede the onset of intuition. 


Typically, that intuition involves some correspondence between, for 
example, creation and creator, in which the underlying cause — the 
ratio legis, if you will — is nothing less daan divine wisdom. For 
Ghazali, it is the task of the initiate to draw such analogies from 
exemplary words and deeds — of the Prophet and his Companions, 
as well as t h e saints — and from visible phenomena, to discover the 
hidden ruling which lies beneatli. The same method is at work in his 
resort to t he (originally Mu‘tazilite) principle of “drawing inferences 
about the invisible from the visible.” In Ghazali’s hands, analogy 
becomes an instrument, based in scrupulous legal speculation, 
which can be extended, with modifications, to much wider fields of 


The law was Ghazali’s chosen profession, but it wasn’t shouldered 
merely as a pious obligation. If at times he stood aloof from his pro- 
fession, that may be because the law as then practised — and especially 
the behavior of its elite scholars, of whatever “school”— offended his 
sense of it as a sacred calling. He is scathing in his denunciations of the 
‘ulama’ , the learned, by which he seems to mean principally the 
jurists. In his view, they are grasping, venal, corrupt, and worldly. 
This is how he satirizes them in his Fajsal al-tafriqa (Bouyges, 43), a 
late work on the definition of “unbelief ” ( kufr ) : 

How could the hidden truths of the immaterial world manifest them- 
selves to a people whose god is their undisciplined passions, whose 
object of worship is their leaders, whose direction of prayer is the 
dinar, whose religious law is their own frivolity, whose will is the 
promotion of reputation and carnal pleasures, whose worship is the 
ser vice they render the rich . . . ? 

Fajsal, tr. Jackson, 87 

That the jurists, the Juqaha’ , are the target of this diatribe becomes 
clear when he goes on to say that “all they possess of the religious 


sciences is knowledge of such things as the rules of ritual purity and 
whether or not water distilled from saffron can be used for ritual 

Throughout the lhya ’ , he misses no opportunity of rebuking, con- 
demning, and lampooning such scholars, sometimes with sarcastic 
gibes. Their hypocrisy scandalized and disillusioned him. He was 
most offended by their indolence, a vice for whch he routinely lam- 
basts tliem.The jurist is not supposed to be lazy in the service of the 
law; he must not merely serve tlie needs of his immediate fellows, 
but seek out those without benefit of legal expertise. Ghazali insists 
tliat tlie jurist has a duty “to go out into the rural hinterland of his 
town, and to the Beduin, the Kurds and the like, and to give them 
religious instruction” for “if you know that people are praying 
wrongly in the mosque, you cannot just sit at home, and much the 
same goes for the market-place” (Cook, 445).This is just one exam- 
ple of that practical form of Sufism Ghazali continually advocates; it 
is “knowledge in action” in the most mundane sense. 

Ghazali was attacked by other scholars, particularly by Hanafites 
and traditionalist Hanbalites — constant instigators of disruption and 
upheaval in Seljuq Baghdad — and this must have nettled him. On dre 
purely human level, his ambition and competitiveness vis-a-vis his 
colleagues cannot be discounted, but I think his fury had deeper 
roots. Sufis impressed him because they lived the lives diey 
preached, while most scholars did not. And yet, die law represented 
t he supreme expression of divine revelation elaborated for humans. 
To corrupt and betray it was reprehensible. 


It is instructive to note the high praise Ghazali constantly showers on 
die Imam Shafi‘i (767—820), the founder of his own legal “school.” 
Whenever Ghazali wishes to present a model of piety wedded to 
scholarship, he turns to Shafi‘i. Widr the exception of the Prophet 
himself, and perhaps Abu Bakr, the Companion of the Prophet (and 


first Caliph) , no one excites his admiration more than this early jurist. 
As he tells us, the Imam meticulously divided his nights into three 
activities: study, worship, and sleep. He read the Qur’an continually; 
whenever he came to verses invoking God’s compassion, he would 
pause and ask God’s mercy not only for liimself but for all “Muslims 
and believers” and when he came to verses describing God’s punish- 
ments, he would pause again and ask God’s salvation not only for 
himself but for all believers. In this way, Ghazali remarks, “it was as if 
hope and fear were joined simultaneously within him” (Ihja ’ , 1 : 36) . 
He praises Shafi‘i’s human traits too. His generosity was legendary 
and generosity, as Ghazali explains, “is die very basis of asceticism” 
since “only someone for whom t liis world is of small account will 
part from what he owns.” 

Shafi‘i was also unusually sensitive to beauty, a trait which 
endeared him to Ghazali, who shared it. Once, when he heard a par- 
ticularly beautiful recitation of Qur’an, tlie Imam “flushed and got 
goosebumps all over his skin and was stirred to his depths .” hi t he 
Maqsad, his work on the divine names, Ghazali terms Shafi‘i “a pious 
and perfect scholar,” and introduces him as an instance of t he 
unknowability we encounter in the presence of a profoundly learned 
man, an unknowability comparable (though on an infinitely lower 
level) to the unknowability of God Himself. Shafi‘i appears through- 
out t he Ihya’ in similar guise. In his very human way, Shafi‘i represents 
the consummate embodiment of tliat fusion of knowledge and action, 
which Ghazali came to see as indispensable to authentic spirituality. 
His reverent allusions to liis master in all matters of jurisprudence as 
well as piety are not, I think, merely tacit rebukes to those false schol- 
ars who have degraded his example; his praise of Shafi‘i constitutes a 
positive, and deeply felt, tribute to a model life, a life to be imitated. 


I stress Ghazali’s fidelity to law for three reasons. First, it reminds us 
that Ghazali stood, and continued to stand, within the Ash‘arite and 


Shafi‘ite traditions, however zealously he espoused Sufism and fol- 
lowed tlae Sufi pada in later years (and however individual his inter- 
pretations of both the Ash‘arite and Shafi‘ite traditions). There was 
no contradiction in following Ash‘arism and professing Sufism: dae 
renowned Qushayri, who influenced Ghazali, combined them with 
distinction. Neverdieless, his greatest and most induential teacher 
remained Juwayni — hardly a Sufi — who was not only a commanding 
daeologian but an authority on legal theory, one of whose concise 
treatises on the subject is still studied as a classic treatment. And 
diough he turned decisively to Sufism, Ghazali kept faith with this 
early induence. 

Second, al-Ghazali’s devotion to legal studies colours our sense of 
him as a Sufi, suggesting how he dibers bot li from his predecessors 
and his successors in dae pada. It’s didicult (though not impossible!) 
to imagine “drunken” Sufis, such as AbuYazid al-Bistami or Hallaj, 
interrupting dieir raptures to delve into questions of the imperative 
mode and its force in legal injunctions. But Ghazali is a diderent sort 
of Sufi, not only because he does not belong to the ecstatic tendency 
of Sufism but because Sufism, for him, wasn’t an exclusive course; 
radier, it provided a medaod for integrating all signidcant knowledge 
under a single over-riding conception. Neither a visionary nor an 
abstract dieoretician of Sufism, Ghazali’s contribution was to 
demonstrate, at lengt li and in detail, how an ordinary life might be 
lived in accord with the highest spiritual principles; indeed, I’d put it 
even more strongly and say, how an ordinary life must be so lived. 
Daily life was to be infused with spirituality; the path was a continual 
ascent, day by day, not a succession of peaks. In this way, without 
becoming a popularizer of Sufism in the vulgar sense, he showed how 
t he Path lay open to all who might seek it with sincere hearts. 

Third, and perhaps most important, al-Ghazali’s ddelity to the 
study of jurisprudence reminds us that we oversimplify when we 
pigeon-hole medieval thinkers within categorical dovecotes of our 
own making. Ghazali later came to hold that reason could not be t he 
dnal arbiter of truth; only “taste” could play that role. But it would 
be wrong to assume that he rejected reason. Throughout his Sud 


treatises, his most persuasive strategy relies neither on emotional 
appeals nor on appeals to mystical experience, but on logical meth- 
ods and rational proof.To the end he remains a jurist in t he woollen 
cloak ofa Sufi. For him, t he intellectremains“the arbiter who neither 
withdraws nor alters,” tlrough intellect must be assisted by revealed 
truth which represents “the witness who is righteous and balanced” 
( Mustasja , 1 :3). 

From the Ghazalian perspective, there is no contradiction 
between activity as a legal scholar and pursuit of tlie Sufi way. 
Knowledge itself, as he put it towards the end, is “a form of action;” 
at its best, knowledge is “the action of die heart,” itself “the most glo- 
rious of organs.” The underlying point, in sound Shafi‘ite fashion, lies 
in the intention.To be a judge or a lawyer — or for that matter, a book- 
seller, a scribe, a warrior or a merchant — while pursuing the highest 
truth, means only that one perform every requisite daily action of 
one’s profession or trade as well as one’s ritual obligations witli a 
purified mind, and that ultimately one see all existence with “the eyes 
of the heart.” Perhaps the best description of the way in which 
jurisprudence and the mystical padi were entwined in Ghazali’s per- 
sonality and way of life comes from a later thinker, t he fourteenth- 
century Planbali theologian Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya — a critical 
admirer— who describedhim as a“jurist of the soul.”The delicacy of 
the compliment lies in the fact that Ibn Qayyim is employing a term 
coined earlier by Ghazali for the practitioner of t lie Law who under- 
stands his calling as a spiritual mission, rather than tlic exercise of 
mere reasoning (Ihja ’ , 3:65/Winter, 36). 


G hazali remained, by botli training and by inclination, a t heologian 
as well as a jurist from the beginning to the end of his career, but 
he was a peculiar dreologian. He extolled dieology as the most illus- 
trious — and t he most comprehensive — of the “sciences of religion,” 
and yet he was well aware of its limits . In part , this was a personal reac- 
tion; in his autobiography he confesses that theology “was inadequate 
in my case, nor was it a remedy for the illness of which I was com- 
plaining” ( Munqidh , 16). More tellingly, in t he last work he wrote he 
issued a warning to “ordinary folk” against the discipline, though only 
a few years previouslv he had exalted its merits. These reservations 
damaged his reputation.To judge from the five or six works of classi- 
cal Kalam tliat he wrote over the course of his career, it seems clear 
that his attitude towards theology was colored by two factors: dae 
audience he was addressing, and the context in which he was writing. 
When he writes for fellow scholars, he assigns t heology its rightful 
place of honor but when he is addressing non-specialists, he sounds a 
note of caution. Even more pointedly, when discussing the driving 
quest for certainty t hat consumed him, he finds himself obliged to 
define the limits of die science.This is not inconsistency but a judi- 
cious assessment of dae scope and objectives proper to thcology. 

He makes his reservations quite clear in his Fajsal, his late work on 
the bounds of belief. In this, he says that involvement with Kalam 



should be forbidden except for two types of people: first, “a man 
whose heart develops doubts which neither simple religious homi- 
lies nor prophetic reports will remove,” and second, “a person of 
superior intelligence who is firmly grounded in religion and whose 
faith is reinforced by tlie light of certainty who wants to acquire this 
discipline in order to be able to treat those who fall sick with doubts.” 
But he caps this by noting that belief based on the proofs of Kalam 
tends to be shaky, liable to collapse “upon encountering the simplest 
sophism” ( Faysal , 123—1 24) . 

Ghazali chafed at the limitations of theology but he uses its argu- 
ments, terminology, and distinctive methodology throughout his 
later work. His Sufi writings are not only permeated by theological 
considerations but also held together in an important way by dialec- 
tical presuppositions. Philosophy came to furnish the intellectual 
structure and framework of his mystical treatises, and especially 
of tlae Ihja’ , but theology supplied the foundations. You might 
even say tlaat, for him, theology represented the unspoken 
propaedeutic of the Sufi approach; it was die ledge, however precar- 
ious, from which any bolder leap would have to be launched. And 
afterwards, even after trutli had been “tasted” — that is, experienced 
in living practise — theology retained its proper standing and its 
appointed uses. It went as far as it could go, t hough that would not 
prove to be far enough. 


Ghazali’s productivity as a theologian increased after his exposure 
to philosophy. In the flurry of works just before and following his 
existential crisis — all of which, amazingly enough, were written 
in a two-year period — he had already begun that cautious fusion 
of notions and methods which were to find so original an expression 
in his master-work. We might say that the critical engagement 
with philosophy revealed to him the radical shortcomings of theol- 
ogy, in much the same way as t he insights of Sufism were to render 


both philosophy and theology subsidiary to t hc search for final truth, 
however useful each might be in its own domain. There was a 
further difference: theology had been compromised by doctrinal and 
factional disagreements but philosophy was more problematic 
still, for several of its tenets were heretical, and damnably so; to deny 
the resurrection of the body, t he creation of the world, or God’s 
knowledge of particular tliings, was to fall into heresy. As a science 
of dialectic, relying on argument and counter-argument, theology 
possessed an inbuilt mechanism for correcting itself. Philosophy, 
notwithstanding the real and numerous differences of opinion 
among philosophers, was more dangerous; it presented a systematic 
and comprehensive view of the world.That meant t hat philosophy, 
if any of it were to be salvaged, had to be knocked apart from the 

Ghazali tells us that certainty was his constant goal. To know 
something with certainty, he says, is to know it in the same way you 
know that someday you will die. But there are degrees of cognition — 
the usual triad is “opinion,”“conviction,” and “knowledge,” in ascend- 
ing order of importance — and only the last of these occurs through 
the right use of the intellect. Even so, Ghazali argues that there exists 
a “stage beyond intellect” which is not demonstrable. Only through 
that ultimate knowledge can certainty be attained. 


Knowledge has degrees.The lowest of tliese is unquestioning accep- 
tance of doctrine on the basis of authority, or taqlid; though a distinct 
step above outright ignorance and though quite appropriate for cer- 
tain believers, it is reprehensible in scholars. Ghazali attacks taqlid of 
this sort, the unthinking credulity of dae learned, but taqlid resem- 
bles innocence: once lost, it cannot be recovered. Ghazali tells us that 
at one moment in his development, he broke free of tliis protective 
ignorance which then, as he noted in a famous simile, “shattered like 
glass” (Munqidh, 15). 


One way to consider Ghazali’s intellectual development is to view 
it as an incessant struggle towards ever-greater awareness; that is how 
he himself saw it, and his works bear him out. It is to follow him farther 
and fart her away from what one of liis contemporaries called “a reli- 
gion of donkeys:”a merely reflexive religion, tlie faitli of those who are 
whipped along the way. It is important to stress, however, that he does 
not mean to disparage simple believers, whose piety he admired, 
remarking that“true faith is dae faith of the masses tlaat develops in their 
hearts from childhood” ( Faysal , 124). Ghazali was not criticizing tlae 
“religion of tlie old women”— supposedly praised by Juwayni at the end 
of liis life — but the lazy ignorance of dae learned.To escape such igno- 
rance, in all its literal asininity, impelled Ghazali to explore science 
after science, discipline after discipline, in tlic search for certainty. 


To give some sense of Ghazali ’s involvement with Kalam, I will briefly 
consider two of his fundamental theological works: first, a formal 
manual of dogmatic theology, and second, a freer and more original 
work in which the infusion of philosophy by theology is unmistak- 
able. Ghazali wrote a number of odier theological works ranging 
from the Qawa ’id al- 'Aqa ’id, a work he first composed during his stay 
in Jerusalem as an “epistle” for Muslims there (and later expanded 
and embedded in dae second book of die Ihja ’) to a series of polemi- 
cal treatises attacking the Isma‘ilis (or “Batinites”). But the line isn’t 
always easy to draw. Though he stands in the tradition of Ash‘arite 
Kalam, which he both promoted and refined, his dieological works 
rarely conform to type. Even die most ostensibly “ordaodox” are 
intermingled widi odier elements, drawn predominantly from plii- 
losophy. The boundaries of the genres, once so precise, become 
blurred with Ghazali. Thus, later in life, he would look back on his 
attack on philosophy in dae Tahajut — to be discussed in dae next 
chapter — as a work of “Kalam,” though that book would strike most 
readers as resolutely “philosophical.” 


Theology vs Philosophy in Islam 

As I noted in the Introduction, theology in Islam, t liough indebted to 
foreign influences in certain of its methods, was an indigenous disci- 
pline; it proceeded by rational modes of argument, typically pre- 
sented in disputation, from revealed truths, and was dialectical: it 
thrived on argument and counter-argument. By contrast, philoso- 
phy, inherited from Greek sources in translation, proceeded from 
first principles by way of demonstration; it sought to be comprehen- 
sive and systematic. 

Philosophers in tlie Aristotelian tradition — which includes most 
of tlie thinkers witla whom Ghazali was engaged — found tlieologians 
annoying; they weren’t concerned with discerning “the real natures 
of tliings,” the objective which Kindi, the first Muslim philosopher, 
had claimed as tlie true goal of knowledge.Theologians wanted only 
to score points and win debates. By the tenth century, the great pupil 
of Farabi, t he Christian Aristotelian Yahya ibn ‘Adi (who wrote in 
Arabic) could give vent to a cranky outburst against the presump- 
tions of such theologians: 

I’m astonished at hearing what our colleagues say . . . “We are the 
discoursers” (mutakallimun) ,“We are the masters of speech” (kalam), 
“Speech is ours” . . . It’s as though other people don’t speak. And yet, 
aren’t others also “people of discourse?” Perhaps for the theologians 
such people are mute or silent? But, sirs, doesn’t the jurist speak? 

And the grammarian, the engineer, the logician, the astronomer, the 
scientist, the metaphysician, the historian, the Sufi . . .? 

Tawhidi, 204 

Not much love would be lost between Islamic philosophers and the- 
ologians over ensuing centuries; each side walloped the other. 
Charges of “heresy”bubbled over; one divine could snap that Ibn Sina 
was “among the damned” (Ormsby 1 984, 82), and he wasn’t an iso- 
lated case. Ghazali tended to distance himself from such wild accusa- 
tions of “heresy.” Unbelief, he argued, applied only to tliose who 
denied the truthfulness of the Prophet. Thus, on certain points 
involving thcir use of figurative interpretation, he even exempts 


Isma‘ilis from the charge ( Faysal , 109). In any case, he would remain 
one of the few major thinkers of his time, and perhaps the only one, 
to master bodi Kalam and Falsafa-, he straddled both camps (and 
sometimes assailed daem both) . 

It’s important not to exaggerate the gulf between philosophers 
and theologians. Their inquiries often overlapped. There were also 
fruitful currents of induence flowing between the disciplines. After 
all, theology had preceded philosophy in Islam in attempting to give 
a coherent picture of reality. As van Ess has noted: 

The word [Kalam] susjsjests that the “dialecticians” were engaged in 
apologetics.That is only partly true, however; theology would soon 
make other claims.The role it envisaged for itselT was to provide an 
authentic explanation of the world. Hence it was naturally taken to be 
a “philosophy” at a time when the tru efalsafa , that of al-Kindi and his 
circle, of al-Farabi and others, on up to Ibn Rushd — the only one that 
deserves to be called a philosophy in our modern view — had not yet 
made its appearance. 

van Ess 2006, 2—3 

The effort to “provide an audientic explanation of dre world,” origi- 
nally undertaken in the early Abbasid period by such brilliant theolo- 
gians as Abu al-Hudliayl al-‘Allaf (d.c. 841) and his nephew and 
former pupil Nazzam (d.c. 845), was eventually taken over, as their 
rightful province, by the philosophers. But diat earlier impulse 
resurfaces in Ghazali’s later selective appropriation of natural philos- 
ophy. Philosophers like Farabi or Ibn Sina had created coherent 
accounts of reality based on demonstrable principles. The urge to 
construct a comparable — and ultimately, superior — account, in 
which revealed trudi, logical argument, and supernatural insight 
would be convincingly reconciled, motivated Ghazali and distin- 
guishes his project. 

This is not to say t hat philosophers rejected Islamic belief. 
According to some reports, Farabi was sometimes seen in Sufi garb 
and Ibn Sina composed a number of fervently mystical treatises. At 
least one philosopher subscribed to a theological school: Kindi 


accepted Mu‘tazilite doctrine, an affiliation which may account for 
the disgrace and persecution which he and his students suffered 
when that school fell out of favor in the middle of the ninth century 
under the Caliph Mutawakkil.There is evidence too that on certain 
crucial questions — such as the celebrated distinction between 
essence and existence (which I shall discuss in the next chapter) — 
theologians and philosophers exerted powerful, if covert, influence 
on each other; the great Mu‘tazilite theologian, tlic Qadi ‘Abd al- 
Jabbar and his contemporary Avicenna — whether or not they ever 
met — echo each other’s conceptions in striking ways (Wisnovsky, 
2004) .The Ghazalian exploitation of the two streams of t hough t had 
deeper roots than is sometimes realized. 

Ghazali’s attitude toward theology seems to change over the 
course of his intellectual career; these apparent changes have some- 
times led to charges of inconsistency or even insincerity. In fact, his 
position with regard to Kalam remains constant from beginning to 
end; the discrepancies that exist arise because of the differing con- 
texts of his remarks.Thus, his last treatise — the Iljam al- ‘awamm ‘an 
‘ilm al-kalam, finished just days before his death — warns against 
allowing theology to fall into die hands of untutored readers, not 
because theology is itself misguided but because, with its array of 
arguments, of objections and counter-objections, it can confuse tlie 
believer and endanger his faith. But for Ghazali, theology remained 
the queen of the religious sciences. In liis last major work, the 
Mustasfa, he proclaimed that theology is “the most exalted science in 
rank” because it considers general truths, from which particular 
truths, such as those which concern jurisprudence and scriptural 
interpretation, are derived. Moreover, thc theologian stands at a 
higher rank than the jurist; the former seeks universality, the latter 
deals with details. At tlie same time, Ghazali is well aware of the 
limits of theology. It may be the highest of the sciences without being 
a guarantee of certainty. 



In tliis short work, composed around 1095 (Hourani, 293), the year 
of his crisis, Ghazali follows the long-established mainstream of 
Ash‘arite tlieology and in particular such earlier masters as Ash‘ari, 
Baqillani, and his teacher, Juwayni.The workbegins with certain pre- 
liminaries concerning the nature and importance of theology, and 
tlien proceeds to four major topics: God’s essence, His attributes, 
His actions, and His emissaries. This concentrated focus on God 
Himself results from Ghazali’s understanding of the purpose and 
objective of theology. As he says, “The objective of tliis science is the 
establishment of proofs for the existence of the Creator, His attrib- 
utes and His acts, and for the truth of His messengers” ( Iqtisad , 1 3). 
Theology is ideally suited for this endeavor, because it consists of 
“ordered discourse.” That is, it proceeds according to the dictates of 
reason but in accord with revealed truth. This is that “just balance” to 
which the first word of Ghazali’s title refers (/^£/Mc/).Thcology is dre 
best method for achieving such a balance between “the obligatory 
precepts of revelation” and “the imperatives of reason.” It is also a 
middle course between the rigid subservience to authority of certain 
traditionists and the presumptuous machinations of both philoso- 
phers and ultra-rationalist theologians, such as the Mu‘tazilites, all of 
which are anathema. In his preface to this rather rigorous treatise — 
which remains untranslated, despite its importance — Ghazali lays to 
the right and the left of him, denouncing, mocking, and vilifying his 
opponents. A polemical, if not vituperative, note is struck from tlre 
outset. Perhaps it was tliis vehemence, and his evident enjoyment of 
it, which led him later to take a cooler, more cautious, view of tliis 
slashing discipline, of which he was so skilled a practitioner. 

Even here, in a work written around the time of his turn to 
Sufism, we find Ghazali employing phrases and formulae which he 
will later use for quite different purposes. For example, he compares 
tlie intellect to “a healthy eye, free of all defects and diseases,” a 
formula which will recur in transfigured guise in later mystical works 


as“the eye of tlie heart.” (He also claims that theology can guide to the 
“lights of certainty,” a view he will come to modify.)The allusion to 
disease is important. As we shall see, perhaps no other writer in the 
Islamic tradition so frequently, indeed so obsessively, refers to sick- 
ness and health, healing and medicine; such references tliread 
Ghazali’s works from start to finish. The human body, its wonders 
and its afflictions, furnishes him with an inexhaustible store of edify- 
ing analogies. 

Theology serves to remove doubt; tliat is one of its crucial func- 
tions. Doubt is removed by proof. Proof illuminates: it requires the 
alliance of reason and revelation. The believer who relies solely on 
scripture is like someone who tries to block the light of t he sun by 
closinghis eyelids;he is nobetter tlian ablindman. Reason and scrip- 
ture represent “light upon light ,” an allusion to the famous verses in 
the Qur’an which describe God thus. Bot h lights are indispensable to 
belief (24:35). 


What does a Ghazalian proof look like? Ghazali begins witli a syllogism 
which he tlien elaborates. His first task is to prove God’s existence. 
Like Ash‘ari before him, he proceeds ffom t he glaring fact of t he 
worlds contingency — the fact tlaat it is not self-caused but depends on 
something outside itself for its existence — which he establishes t luts: 

We say: Every contingent entity must have a cause for its contingency; 
But the world is contingent; 

From this it therefore follows that the world has a cause. 

Iqtisad, 29 

He then elaborates. By “world” he denotes “every existing thing 
except God” and by “every existing thing except God” he means “all 
bodies and their accidents.” Armed with these definitions Ghazali 
then delves into a more detailed exposition. For example, every 


existing tliing either occupies space or it does not. In the case of a spa- 
tially located thing that is non-composite, we term t his “simple sub- 
stance whereas a composite thing is termed a “body.” With regard 
to a non-spatially located entity, it may be the sort of thing whose 
existence requires a body in order to subsist; this we term an “acci- 
dent;”such qualities as“redness,”“tallness,”and the like. Or it may be 
something non-spatial which does not require a body; tliis we call 
God ( Iqtisad , 29). 

Once set in motion, the mechanism of Ghazali’s argument pur- 
sues a rather predictable course. But along the way, certain questions 
and dilemmas emerge that deserve mention, for they shed light on 
his particular perspective. In elucidating the Arabic technical term 
for “a contingent thing,” Ghazali gives the definition as “what was 
non-existent then became existent.” And he explains it thus: 

Prior to existence, a thinjj was either impossible or possible. But it is 
false to say it was impossible; the impossible is that which never can 
exist. Suppose it is possible: by ‘possible’ we mean exclusively that 
which has the possibility to exist and the possibility not to exist. But a 
contingent thing is non-existent [only] because its existence is not 
inherently necessary (otherwise, it would be necessary, not possible) . 
On the contrary, for it to exist, it needs some preponderating factor in 
favor of existence as against non-existence, in such a way that its non- 
existence may be exchanged for its existence. 

Iqtisad, 25 

The passage, like so much in formal Islamic theology, is abstract and 
almost telegraphic in its succinctness. The point is this: anything 
which exists comes to exist only because something else, something 
outside it, caused it to exist; it contains no intrinsic factor which 
could cause its own existence . And the same holds for anything which 
does not exist; its non-existence is the result of another external 
agency. Things in themselves are neutral witli respect to bodi exis- 
tence and non-existence.This state of affairs is what is meant by con- 
tingency: the existence, or the non-existence, of a thing occurs 
because of some agency other than its own. 


The passage is instructive, because it shows Ghazali weaving 
together theological and philosophical terminology in a novel way. 
The agenda is theological; the method is philosophical.The very con- 
cept of“existent” or of “being”— along with such terms as “possible,” 
“impossible,” and “necessary” — has been appropriated from the 
philosophers; theologians had tended to use other terms for dieir 
arguments. More importantly, the distinction on which the argu- 
ment rests is taken over from the philosophers, and in particular, 
from Ibn Sina (Avicenna).The Avicennian concept of contingency, so 
fruitful for later thinkers, both Eastern andWestern, plays a central 
role in Ghazali’s later Sufi thinking. Here Ghazali injects it into 
Ash‘arite discourse, just as later he will use it as the philosophical 
basis for his mystical world-view. Beliind such leaden terms as “pre- 
ponderating factor” lurks not only Ibn Sina’s First Cause, the One, 
but also — as Ghazali will develop such notions in his later work — the 
ineffable, quickening God of the Sufis, not to be known by the intel- 
lectbut incommunicably, t lirough “taste.” 

It is important to remember that this rigorous little school treatise 
of dogmatic theology was written after Ghazali’s immersion in 
Falsafa; indeed, it was composed right on the heels of his two major 
works on philosophy. Though Ghazali probably first imbibed philo- 
sophical notions from Juwayni, who was already under their influ- 
ence, it is striking to observe how effortlessly he weaves diem into 
traditional dieological discourse (Frank, 1992; Moosa, 38). 


Ibn Sina died in 1037, some twenty years before Ghazali was born. 
His writings exerted an immense, if covert, induence, beginning 
with Ghazali’s own teacher, Juwayni. It is no exaggeration to say that 
neither philosophy nor theology would ever be the same afterwards, 
however suspect, or downright heretical, certain of liis teacliings 
would appear. Though the reasons for this — as well as tlie complex 
process by which his diought infiltrated such opposing disciplines as 


Kalam — are too complex to be considered here (and have not, in any 
case, yet been fully unraveled) , one factor may have been paramount, 
especially for Ghazali. Simply put, Ibn Sina constructed a systematic 
and coherent account of existence on rational grounds, which could 
be integrated, albeit wida crucial modifications, into an over-arching 
world-view consistent with Islamic revelation. It was Ghazali’s 
achievement — and to a lesser extent, Juwayni’s — to have inaugurated 
tliis integration and to have carried it successfully forward. In dae 
course of time, Ash‘arite and other t heologians would continue to 
assimilate Avicennian concepts, until by the fourtcent h century these 
would seem not only unremarkable but normal. 

What is less conspicuous is tliat Ghazali, in particular, would make 
die fundamental components of t hc Avicennian system t he founda- 
tion upon which he constructed and articulated a new and compre- 
hensive mystical philosophy and practise, a systematic Sufism of 
compelling authority. As has long been recognized, Ghazali did not 
demolish philosophy widi his caustic critique (in The Incoherence of the 
Philosophers) . Philosophy continued, not only in the works of Ibn 
Rushd (Averroes), Ghazali’s great opponent, but most conspicu- 
ously, in the east, and in particular, in Iran. (It thrives today, in dae 
Shi‘ite seminaries of Qum and Najaf.) More significantly, it persisted 
within mainstream Islamic daought, folded into theological and mys- 
tical speculations so seamlessly as eventually to be taken for granted. 
Far from destroying philosophy, Ghazali sanitized it for his own pur- 
poses, as well as for later appropriation by both dieologians and Sufis. 


For all its arid tone, die Iqtisad contains moments of surprise. 
Something deeply human beckons between the tightly-strung syllo- 
gisms. One passage illustrates diis sudden efdorescence amid deserts 
of dogma. Ghazali is engaged in a refutation of Mu‘tazilite optimism. 
The discussion revolves around a set question, already old by his time: 
wouldn’t it have been better, wouldn’t it in fact have been “optimal,” if 


God had simply, from the outset, created mankind in paradise? The 
strategy of such a question is obvious; the Mu‘tazilite now has to 
embark on a lengthy — and not very convincing — explanation of why 
earthly life, with all its miseries, is preferable to immediate creation in 
paradise.The point of tlae question wasn’t to attack God. Radaer, it was 
meant to show that God’s will is unsearchable; no merely rational 
scheme can encompass it. In tlie course of argument, Ghazali inserts a 
passage as characteristic as it is refreshing. We all believe tlaat life in par- 
adise would have been better for us, whatever tlie Mu‘tazilites may 
sputter.This life is nothing but heaviness and toil, if only because we are 
subject to all-encompassing religious obligation. Ghazali asks: 

How can any intelligent man say that there is benefit in a creation 
where such obligation exists? Benefit has meaning only if obligation is 
absent. For obligation in its essence is the imposition of constraint, and 
that is pain. 

Iqtisad, 176 

Ghazali’s vehemence startles as he waxes eloquent on tlie miseries of 
existence; it’s not merely obligation but existence itself tlaat weighs 
us down: 

There would be benefit for man had he been created in paradise 
without pain or grief, but as for our present existence, all intelligent 
men desire non-being. One says, ‘ Would that I were oblivious and 
forgotten! ’ Another says, ‘ Would that I were nothing! ’ And still 
another, ‘ Would that I were this piece of straw that is swept from the 
earth! ’ And yet another says, while pointing to a bird, ‘ Would that 1 
were that bird! ’ These are the words oi prophets and saints who are 
intelligent men. Some of them desire cessation of existence while 
others desire cessation of responsibility to become inanimate matter 
or a bird. 

Iqtisad, 176 

This is an ancient sentiment.The Roman poet Lucretius asked, “What 
evil would we have suffered from not being created?” But Ghazali is 
not quoting t he ancients; he is speaking from his own experience. He 


has taken tlae question from age-old wrangles but he has made it 
personal.The ancient question now has overtones of a cri de coeur. 


al-Maqsad al-asnafi sharh ma’ani asma’ Allah al-husna 

This treatise can be dated to sometime after the year 1097, that is, 
two years or so after Ghazali completed the lhya’ (Bouyges, 46; 
Hourani, 298). It is quite different from traditional works of Kalam, 
representing a theological sub-genre in which the ninety-nine “beau- 
tiful names” of God — those by which He is designated in the Qur’an 
— are enumerated and discussed. It is a discussion to which, a gener- 
ation earlier, Ibn Hazm had contributed and which die Ash‘arite the- 
ologian Fakhr al-Din al-Razi would carry forward in the next 
century. It is an exposition; a homily, rather than an apology. 

The Paradox oj the Nominal 

Ghazali’s approach rests on an insoluble paradox. As he puts it: “To 
know something is to know its essential reality and its identity, not the 
names derived from it” ( Maqsad/ Burrell , 37). This precept harkens 
back to Juwayni but gains force from Ghazali’s deepened knowledge 
of philosophy. N ames point to things but don ’t disclose the identitities 
of those tliings by mere indication. Ghazali brings in a favorite exam- 
ple, drawn from human experience at its most fundamental: 

Were a small boy or an impotent person to say to us : what is the way to 
know the pleasure of sexual intercourse, and to perceive its essential 
reality? We would say: there are two ways here: one of them is for us to 
describe it to you, so that you can know it: the other is to wait patiently 
until you experience the natural instinct ol passion in yourself, and 
then for you to engage in intercourse so that you experience the plea- 
sure of intercourse yourself, and so come to know it.This second way 
is the authentic way, leading to the reality of knowledge. 

Maqsad, 50/Burrell, 38 


Ghazali is a master of vivid example. Notliing is too earthy or mun- 
dane to be used. He is fond not only of allusions to sex but of refer- 
ences to the pleasures of eating and of games, such as chess, to drive 
a point home. Ghazali draws on the example of impotence in the 
Ihya ' and, more crudely, in another late work where he relates t hat: 

an impotent man wrote to a friend of his to ask him what the pleasure 
of sex was like. So he wrote back to him in reply, “O so and so, I 
thought you were just impotentl Now I know that you are impotent 
and stupid! 

Letter, 14 

It’s hard to imagine Ash‘ari or Juwayni stooping to such examples, 
not because they were priggish but because they were concerned so 
doggedly with purely rational proofs. Ghazali, by contrast, delights 
in drawing on the vast grubbiness of human experience. And tlie re’s 
a sly humor in the example. Can we really imagine “a small boy” 
putting such a question, in such stilted terms, to a theologian? By 
such techniques Ghazali titillates, then captures his reader’s 

The example, however droll, has a serious purpose. For we could 
ask the same question, stand in the same perplexity, with regard to 
our knowledge of God.To know His names is not to know Him. And 
yet, in trut h , we both know Him and do not know Him. Here is how 
Ghazali builds upon his example: 

There are two ways of knowing God . . . one of them inadequate and 
the other closed.The inadequate way consists in mentioning names and 
attributes and proceeding to compare them with what we know from 
ourselves. For when we know ourselves to be powerlul, knowing, 
living, speaking, and then hear those terms attributed to God . . . , or 
when we come to know them by demonstration, in either case we 
understand them with an inadequate comprehension, much as the 
impotent person understood the pleasure of intercourse if om what 
was described to him of the pleasure of sweets. Indeed, our life, power, 
and understanding are farther from the life, power, and understanding 
of God — great and glorious — than sugar’s sweetness is from the 


pleasure of intercourse. In fact, there is no correspondence between 

Maqsad, 51/ Burrell, 39; modified 

To acknowledge the traditional attributes of God (powerful, living, 
knowing, etc.) or to intone His names, is not to know Him truly. We 
can draw on our experience of these attributes in ourselves but t his 
understanding will be partial; no analogy is possible, because of God’s 
utter unlikeness with anything created, as the Qur’an makes clear: 
“Notliing is comparable to Him” (42:11). As for tlie second way, 
which is “closed,” that would be tantamount to experiencing God’s 
nature as He Himseh experiences it; and yet, “it is impossible for any- 
one other t han God truly to know God most high .” Unlike the clueless 
boy, who can wait for maturity to know sexual intercourse, we can 
never come to experience the reality of God. With respect to Him, we 
are all like the blind, who have no comprehension of sight, or the 
deaf, who cannot appreciate the force of hearing. What then is the 
point of all our knowledge? It is to bring us to the realization that we 
are unable — fundamentally and intrinsically unable — to know God. 
Recognition of our essential ignorance is exactly tlie point; that too is 
knowledge, perhaps the most crucial form of knowledge. Ghazali 
quotes a favorite saying, attributed to Abu Bakr, which he often intro- 
duces into such discussions: “The absence of insight is itself insight.” 


This sounds like a riddle, and it is. It is the riddle of our condition. 
The fact that with regard to the mystery of God we are incapable 
of insight tells us something, both about ourselves and about God. 
(T. S. Eliot expressed sometliing similar in a mystical passage of his 
Four Quartets, when he wrote : “And what you do not know is the only 
thing you know.”) For Ghazali, there are fixed limits to our percep- 
tion, quite apart from the fact t hat: some people have greater insight 
tlian others; through recognition of such limits we come to confront 


God’s essential unknowability. This should not be considered mere 
mystical piffle; a vapid declaration of ineffability. It is, on the con- 
trary, an epistemological principle of considerable depdi. When we 
begin witli an awareness of our ignorance, we may come to under- 
stand, albeit in a way that is “illusory and anthropomorphic,” some 
small aspect of dae traces, the signs, of the divine in His creation. 
Here is anodier aspect of Ghazali which differentiates him from his 
predecessors: he is resolutely focused on the particulars of creation, 
sometimes to t he lowliest of details — from die gnats wing or the 
scratching of an ant, to the wheeling of the stars of heaven — so that 
“the more a man comprehends of the details of die tliings which have 
been decreed, and the workmanship in t he kingdom of the heavens, 
the more abundant his share will be in knowing the attribute of 
power.” God is to be “known” in the very existence of things for they 
are die “traces” of His attributes. 

Hence, by considering t he ninety-nine names of God, by explor- 
ing t heir implications, by meditating on t hem , by seeking in our own 
fragmented and imperfect way to imagine them, we come a tiny bit 
closer to knowing them, though our knowledge will always, even in 
paradise, remain imperfect. As ever, Ghazali’s object is not simply to 
correct human pretension but to emphasize the illimitable vastness 
of God. 

And yet, we do know something: “whoever knows himself knows 
his Lord,” is a famous tradition which Ghazali likes to cite. Bot h 
statements — “I know only God” and “Only God knows God” — are 
correct, however contradictory they appear. Out of the fact of 
our insightlessness a few glimmerings arise. And so the remainder of 
his treatise is devoted to examining the divine names, if only in 
an effort to approximate to some knowledge of their reality. The 
book isn’t rnerely a theological excursion, laced widi philosophical 
and mystical formulations, but offers a program of spiritual exercise 
in which die dieological imagination is stretched to t hc limit 
(reminiscent, in this respect, of certain Zen manuals or t he Spiritual 
Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, both all works of meditative 
callisthenics) . 



I suspect tliat the treatise was meant for practical application, per- 
haps by Ghazali’s novices during t h c years when he headed his own 
Sufi convent in Nishapur; and that it was, in fact, a handbook for 
meditation. It follows a bipartite structure in the discussion of indi- 
vidual names; each name is discussed and analyzed and t here then fol- 
lows a section in which the “human portion”accruing to each name is 
outlined.These have a practical feel, as though tliey were intended as 
outlines for actual step-by-step contemplation. If so, the treatise rep- 
resents a practical script for the exercise of “knowledge and action” 
combined. Certain names (Powerful, Hearing, Living) lend them- 
selves to this procedure fairly easily, but consider how Ghazali deals 
with names in which a human being would seem to have no “portion .” 
The divine name Musawwir means literally “He who gives form” 
(sura), a prerogative, par excellence, of divinity.This name belongs to 
God“inasmuch as He arranges the forms of things in t h c finest order, 
and forms them in the finest way.” How can mere man partake of this 
attribute? According to Ghazali, 

Man’s share in this name lies in acquirin 5 in his soul the form of exis- 
tence of each thing with respect to its disposition and arrangement 
until he comprehends the organization of the universe and its arrange- 
ment throughout, as though he were looking at it; and then descends 
from the whole to details, looking on the human form, especially 
its body and bodily members, to come to know their kinds and 
number, their assembly and the wisdom in their creation and their 

Maqsad, 82/ Burrell, 70 

How can we do this? By t hc re-creation in our minds — the picturing, 
if you will — of the thing in question. When God knows a form, His 
knowledge organises its actual existence; when we know a form, we 
fashion a conceptual image in our minds. Our share is thus the“acqui- 
sition of t he cognitive form corresponding to tlie existential form.” 
As he explains: 


Man benefits by knowing the meaning of the name Musawwir 
[Fashioner] among the names of God . . . for by acquiring the form in 
his soul he also becomes a fashioner, as it were, even if that be put only 

Maqsad, 83 / Burrell, 71 

This act of imaginative replication entails understanding: 

. . . the reason why the stars are on high while earth and water are 
below, as well as the kinds of order operative in the vast sectors of the 
universe . . . Everyone who has a more abundant knowledge of these 
details has a greater comprehension of the meaning of the name 
Musawwir. And this arrangement and conception are found in every 
part of the world, however small, all the way to the ant and the atom 
and even in every one of the ant’s organs. 

Maqsad, 82/ Burrell, 70 

Such scrupulous stock-taking of creation is man’s proper portion, and 
Ghazali praises its benefits throughout his work. Note how smoothly 
Ghazali integrates theological, philosophical, and mystical argumen- 
tation and demonstration in a seamless discourse. The notion tliat 
knowledge involves an acquisition of the form known in the soul is 
philosophical, as is the assertion that this world exemplifies the finest 
possible order, a notion as old as Plato’s Timaeus (excerpts from which 
appeared early in Arabic). The framework of the discussion, and 
indeed tlie entire import of t he treatise, is theological; its tone and 
thrust are unmistakably Sufi in inspiration and spirit.This is no longer 
Kalam as it had been practised, but a bold theology, tlie implications of 
which would only become apparent in later generations. 


Despite his respect for Kalam, Ghazali found it ultimately unsatisfy- 
ing. His dissatisfaction may explain die novel approach taken in his 
treatise on the divine names; that is, a more inward-looking, non- 
disputational form of tlieological discourse. As for traditional Kalam, 


as noted earlier, he states in his autobiography that it was a science 
adequate for its purposes, “but not for mine Dialectical theology 
had always been a double-edged discipline; dependent on proofs as 
well as on disputational adroitness, it could be misused, to prove now 
one point, now another, purely according to the skill of the dialecti- 
cian.Yes, it can be used to prove the existence of God or the created- 
ness of the world or the necessity of prophecy. But such proofs, even 
if iron-clad, only go so far.They can convince the head without per- 
suading thc heart. 

To tliis must be added a strong sense of disillusionment which 
Ghazali voices frequently in his later works. His contempt for tlre 
learned at times brims over. He rarely misses an opportunity to 
skewer them, even in passing comments. For example, in Book 36 of 
tlie Ihya ’ , he makes an ironic justification for “heedlessness,” a repre- 
hensible trait without which the world could not continue on its 
course, and he says: 

Wisdom requires heedlessness to exist for the world to thrive. If all 
people were to eat only permitted food for forty days, the world 
would fall apart because of their austerity; markets, not to mention 
livelihoods, would be ruined. Even more, if religious scholars were to 
eat nothing but permitted foods, they would become occupied only 
with themselves; their tongues and their feet would grind to a halt and 
they would cease from much that they do to spread knowledge abroad. 

Ihya’ , 3:355 

Ghazali knew whereof he spoke: he had been a religious scholar. 
Ghazali’s savage censure of the class to which he had once belonged 
may help to explain his shifting coolness towards tlieology itself. He 
had witnessed how it could be abused and that may have made him 
mistrust thc discipline itself; it was a weapon, essential for defending 
tlie truths of the faith, but not an instrument by which truth itself 
could be found. It is apologetic rather than systematic; it demolishes 
but it does not build. For that, Ghazali would have to turn to a rival 



Ghazali has long been seen as tlic destroyer of philosophy in tlie Islamic 
world.Though it has become fashionable to discount or qualify tliis 
view, it has an element of truth. Certainly Ghazali delivered a double- 
whammy to philosophy, which left it reeling.True, philosophy contin- 
ued briefly in Islamic Spain and even in Iraq — witla IbnTufayl and Ibn 
Rushd (Averroes) in the West and such thinkers as Abu al-Barakat al- 
Baghdadi, a Jewish convert to Islam, in t hc East — but Baghdadi died 
around 1 1 65 , a mere half-century after Ghazali’s death, and Ibn Rushd 
died in 1198, leaving no local legacy except tlaat assimilated by his 
younger contemporary, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, 
who himself expired in 1 204. Philosophy experienced a ratlier glori- 
ous resurgence in thc East, culminating in the philosophers of thc 
Isfalaan School; a tradition that, by the way, continues today. And yet, 
the further elaboration of Falsafa was certainly diwarted; whether tlais 
was due solely to Ghazali’s influence or to a combination of other cir- 
cumstances, among which his attaclc must be considered decisive, 
remains open to question. As is well known, Islamic Falsafa, whichhad 
continued for over tliree hundred years, would hcncciort h pass, via 
Latin and Hebrew translations, toWestern Scholastic tlaeologians. 

Among t hc European thinkers to whom Ghazali’s philosophical 
writings eventually became available, a curious volte-Jace occurred. 



He was first seen as a philosopher and Latinized as “Algazel,” on t ht- 
basis of his preliminary exposition, The lntentions of the Philosophers , 
translated into Latin as Intentiones Philosophorum. But when Ibn 
Rushds counter-blast against Ghazali was translated into Latin, there 
could no longer be any doubt as to where “Algazel” stood. At t h a t 
point, Ghazali — once regarded by tlie Latin Scholastics as Ibn Sina’s 
foremost disciple — stood nakedly “exposed as a philosophy-basher” 
(Wisnovsky 2003, 167). 

Ghazali did bash philosophy; and yet, in a certain sense, he did 
something far subtler and ultimately more damaging. He demon- 
strated conclusively ( pace Ibn Rushd) that a large number of its doc- 
trines were utterly incompatible with Islamic revelation. Worse, he 
sought to prove t hat tliose doctrines were untenable in diemselves. 
They weren’t only heretical but false. He carried this out by so thor- 
oughly absorbing and mastering the vocabulary and the arguments of 
t he philosophers that he could refute tliem on their own terms. It 
wasn’t enough merely to denounce them as heretics. Only die 
irrefutable proof that diey were deluded would suffice. But die sub- 
tler aspect of his demolition efforts was in the end more damaging. 
Falsafa offered too much of value to be lightly discarded. Logic— and 
especially,Aristotelean syllogistic hadto be retained, andhe would 
strenuously defend its value; like geometry or astronomy, it was doc- 
trinally neutral, as well as enormously useful. As he put it in the auto- 
biography, logic does not: 

. . . have anything to do with religion by way of negation and affirmation 
. . . Knowledge is either a concept, and the way to know it is the 
definition, or it is an assent, and the way to know it is the apodictic 
demonstration.There is nothing in this which must be rejected. 

Munqidh, 22 / McCarthy, 74^75 

His position on the neutrality of certain sciences — not only logic but 
astronomy and mathematics — would prove influential. Thus, we 
find the great Ash‘arite theologian ‘Adud al-Din al-Iji, who died in 
1 355, declaring that with regard to such sciences as astronomy,“pro- 
hibition does not extend to them, being neither an object of belief 


nor subject to affirmation or negation” (Endress 2003, 159). But 
other features of philosophy, ranging from its precise technical ter- 
minology to certain fundanrental concepts — the nature and cate- 
gories of being, the distinction between essence and existence, tlre 
vexed question of causality — could not be sacrificed either. These 
notions are woven into his works of AslTarite Kalam from tlre outset; 
they betray an Avicennian flavour at virtually every turn.This is true 
not only of such later works as his treatise on divine names but in the 
Iqtisad, which we have already discussed. Once touched by philoso- 
phy, Ghazali could not let it go. 


Most of all, beyond individual concepts and definitions, it was the 
systematic character of philosophy which held irresistible appeal. 
Shorn of its heretical precepts, philosophy offered the possibility of a 
cosmic structure which no other discipline — neither theology nor 
law nor Sufism — could provide. As Richard Frank has rightly 

There would seem to be little doubt that al-Ghazali’s aijonizinsT quest 
for cosjnitive certitude was in larjje part resolved by his conhdence in 
his own contemplative grasp of the operation of God’s activity in cre- 
ation in the terms of his own adaptation of the Avicennian model. 

Frank 1992, 17 

Such a “cognitive grasp” might be fuelled by Sufism but it could only 
be articulated with full coherence through the system-building 
possibilities of philosophy. 


This hefty treatise, whose title means “The Intentions of dre 
Philosophers,” was probably completed in 1094. It is a neutral 


exposition of philosophical doctrine, principally that of Ibn Sina. 
One of several titles written during the hectic period leading up to 
Ghazali’s crisis, this exposition would be completed, a year or so 
later, by his medaodical critique of philosophy in dae Tahajut 
al-Falasifa (“The Incoherence of die Philosophers”) . He tells us in his 
autobiography how he set about mastering die discipline: 

I knew, of course, that undertaking to refute their doctrine before 
comprehending it and knowing it in depth would be a shot in the dark. 
So I girded myself for the task of learning that science by the perusal of 
their writings without seeking the help of a master and teacher. I 
devoted myself to that in the moments I had free from writing and 
lecturing on the legal sciences — and I was then burdened with the 
teaching and instruction of three hundred students in Baghdad. As it 
turned out, through mere reading in those embezzled moments, 

God Most High gave me an insight into the farthest reaches of the 
philosophers’ sciences in less than two years.Then, having understood 
their doctrine, I continued to reflect assiduously on it for nearly a 
year, coming back to it constantly and repeatedly re-examining its 
intricacies and proiundities. 

Munqidh, 18/ McCarthy, 70 

The passage has some of the braggadocio of Ibn Sina himself who 
boasted tliat he had mastered the science of medicine by tlie age of 
eighteen, because medicine “is not a difficult science.” Ghazali’s obvi- 
ous mastery of philosophy after only three years of reading and 
reflection proves that he was as much of a quick study as his shadowy 
adversary (and there may even be a tacit one-upmanship in his boast) . 

In The Intentions his hostile intent is not yet evident; t he book con- 
stitutes a valuable summary of the Avicennian system. In his preface, 
Ghazali explains that the work is meant as expository, and for good 
reason: “To consider tlie falsity of their teachings before having 
grasped the bases of tlieir conceptions is impossible .” He continues: 

I saw that I might preface my exposure of their contradictory doctrine 
with a succinct discourse containing an account of their intentions in 
the sciences of logic, physics and metaphysics, without distinguishing 


between what is true and what false in them. In fact, my sole purpose 
was to make the ultimate thrust of their doctrines comprehensible. 

Maqasid, 3 1 

This is in accord with the life-long guiding principle he articulates in 
the autobiography, where he asks, “How can that which has not been 
understoodbe either accepted or rejected?” ( Munqidh , 20). To justify 
this procedure, he invokes the saying ascribed to ‘ Ali: “Do not know 
the trutli by men but rather, know the trutli and you will know its 
adherents” (Munqidh/ McCarthy, 78). It is adherence to this precept 
which enables liim to discriminate boldly between what may be 
turned to use, and what discarded, in such suspect disciplines as 

The Maqasid al-Falasifa has never been translated into English, 
though it should be. I can touch on only a few salient points to 
demonstrate both how fluently Ghazali had mastered the technical 
jargon of philosophy — much of which he would adopt for his own 
purposes — as well as how firmly he grasped and appropriated several 
key notions which would serve him well in later works, again in the 
service of his spiritual agenda. 

The work is divided into three sections: Logic, Metaphysics, and 
Physics (or Natural Science). This is odd. Usually metaphysics is 
treated last, not only because that was the traditional order, from 
Aristotle’s first editor on, but because“divine science” occupied t he 
highest rank in the degrees of knowledge. Ghazali acknowledges 
this, noting that “it is the usual practise of the philosophers” to place 
physics before metaphysics and yet, he reverses the order because 
metaphysics, which is “the final end and goal of all the sciences,” is 
simply “more important.” This reshuffling may indicate a certain 
impatience on his part to arrive quickly at tlie heart of the matter. 

Knowledge Theoretical and Practical 

In the section on metaphysics, Ghazali begins his discussion with the 
distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge. As I noted 


earlier, t liis ancient division would come to underpin his later Sufi 
insistence on the necessity for harmonizing knowledge and action. It 
underpins the insistence without determining it. For Ibn Sina, theo- 
retical knowledge enjoys primacy over practical knowledge; for 
Ghazali, die two must be reconciled. (And indeed, in his style, die 
two are seamlessly interwoven, witli theoretical dourishes always 
buttressedby practical, and often downright homely, examples.) But 
it is easy to see how the clarity of the distinction must have appealed 
to his systematic mind. 

Practical knowledge is concerned with human actions ; theoretical 
knowledge with “the conditions of existing things in such a way tliat 
die form of all existence, in its entirety and in its order, becomes pre- 
sent to our minds.” Practical knowledge deals with politics and state- 
craft, with economics, and with edrics, all subjects to which Ghazali 
would make important contributions.Theoretical knowledge com- 
prises natural science, mathematics, and theology (or“first philoso- 
phy”) . It progresses from what cannot be free of matter eidier in dre 
mind or in actuality, for example, man himself, to what is free of 
matter in the mind but not in actuality, for example, geometrical 
figures, to diat which is utterly free of matter, for example, the intel- 
lect, God Himself. Here, in t he ascending scale of abstraction, we 
encounter the first traces of that hierarchical and interlocking 
systematization of reality characteristic of Neo-Platonic thought in 
general and of Avicennian t hought in particular. Its seductiveness is 

The distinction, not yet transfigured into an ethical imperative, 
began to shape Ghazali’s methods almost at once. We see it in the two- 
part structure ofhis philosophical enterprise, widi die Maqasid repre- 
senting knowledge and the T ahafut action . Later the dichotomy would 
be made explicit in such two-part discourses as dre MTyar al- ‘ilm 
(“The Criterion of Knowledge”), his exposition of logic, which (as 
he announces at t he end of the book) would be complemented by the 
Mizan al- ‘amal (“The Criterion of Action”), a treatise on ethics. Logic 
provides die criteria for valid knowledge, edrics the criteria for right 
action; diey represent distinct disciplines and yet are inseparable. 


The Notion oj Being 

It is in the philosophical conception of being that the influence of phi- 
losophy, and its enduring impact, on Ghazali become most apparent. 
“Divine science” treats of being because it is “the most universal of 
subjects.” For tliis reason, “the intellect should grasp being by way of 
simple apprehension.” It has no choice but to do so, since being by its 
very nature permits neither description nor definition. It is the com- 
monest of notions, innately known, and yet not susceptible to defin- 
ition; there exists no larger category under which being can be 
subsumed and by which it might be defined.The science of being thus 
has as its object to identify and explore: 

. . . the concomitants of being per se inasmuch as it is sheer being; that is, 
as substance and accident, universal and particular, one and many, 
cause and caused, potential and actual, congruent and divergent, 
necessary and possible. . .For these concomitants adhere to being 
purely as being. [They do not adhere] as in the case of a triangle or a 
square, in which they do so only after a being has become dimensional; 
nor as with even and odd which adhere only after a being has become 
numerical; nor as with white and black which adhere only after the 
being has become a physical entity. 

Maqasid, 1 39 

Though Ghazali is simply describing the distinctions made by the 
philosophers , he will adopt boda tliose distinctions and the terminol- 
ogy that goes with them. In particular, the distinction between nec- 
essary and possible being will prove crucial. From it a formulation of 
contingency arises that Ghazali will make the cornerstone of his own 
Sufi world-view. The distinction was not novel. Earlier theologians, 
including Ash‘ari, had employed it, though in different terms. For 
them, the telling contrast lay between what was eternal and what was 
temporal. Creation was temporal, or “created-in-time,” and this very 
fact implied that it required a non-temporal creator to bring it fort li 
from nothingness; that eternal creator was God. But the philosophi- 
cal formulation was not merely a shift in terminology from “eternal” 


to “necessary” and from “temporal” to “contingent”; it had pro- 
founder implications. 

Necessary and Possible Being 

Modal terms are notoriously circular; as Aristotle was the first to 
point out, t hey are definable only in terms of each other. Thus, t he 
necessary may be defined as that die non-existence of which is 
impossible; similarly, t lic impossible is that thc non-existence of 
which is necessary, while the possible is that which is neither neces- 
sary nor impossible. In Aristotle, these distinctions are logical; later, 
however, thanks largely to Farabi and Ibn Sina, they become ontolog- 
ical distinctions as well. If we describe God as necessary, we exclude 
both His possibility and His impossibility, and in so doing, we say 
something about His essential nature. As necessary being, FIe is 
uncaused; FIe is “the necessarily existing being” ( wajib al-wujud). 
In the divine nature, essence and existence are one; what God is 
coincides with the fact that He is. Such unity of essence and existence 
does not obtain in other beings. 

All beings other than God are possible, by definition. They can 
exist and t hey can not-exist. Furthermore, their essence — their 
whatness or “quiddity” — does not imply their existence. We can 
speak of a stone, a horse, or a man and ask, What is it? But the answer 
to our question does not entail the existence of that object. Existence 
is incidental to the identification of essence. But this procedure is no 
longer purely logical. For Ibn Sina, following Farabi, the distinction 
becomes ontological, a matter of being.There is notliing in die nature 
of man, or of anything else, to imply, let alone necessitate, his exis- 
tence. Rather, existence is something separable which canbe“added” 
to essence. This represents die very nature of die contingent: it is 
something the very existence and non-existence of which must be 
caused by something other than itself. As one historian of Islamic phi- 
losophy has put it: 

If we examine any existing species, we find nothing in its essence to 

account for its existence. In itself, such an existent is only possible: it 


can exist or not exist. From what it is, we cannot infer that it exists, 
although in fact it exists. Something has“specified”it with existence; 
and this something, argued Avicenna, must be its necessitating cause. 

Marmura 1967, 227; his emphasis 

So far, so good; but from this arises an important corollary. Once the 
merely contingent has been “specified” and brought into existence, it 
becomes necessary; not necessary per se, as God is the Necessarily 
Existent, but “necessary by another.”The very fact of existence con- 
fers necessity on its recipient. If not, the divine causation would be 
somehow imperfect, for its effects must follow inevitably from its 
specifying action. Ibn Sina would use this concept to argue for tlie 
eternity of the world, a notion abhorrent to Ghazali (and which he 
would contest in the Tahajut ): if the Necessary Being is eternal, so 
too are the effects of His will. But while rejecting its implications, 
Ghazali would nevertheless appropriate the Avicennian notion of 
contingency, in its double sense, for his own purposes.The radical 
contingency of all created being would buttress Sufi perceptions of 
the momentariness of experience wliile tlie concomitant specifying 
and necessitating operation of divine will would hot It safeguard 
God’s power and testify to the necessary consequences of His 
wisdom. The Avicennian formulation wordd also underlie Ghazali’s 
startling elaboration of theodicy which he expressed in the contro- 
versial assertion, “Nothing in possibility is more wonderful than 
what is” (Ormsby, 1 984) . 

Though the Maqasid represents a neutral outline of Avicennian 
doctrine, tliere are liints throughout the work of themes which 
Ghazali will later appropriate and develop. When he discusses the 
human senses, and in particular, tliat of taste (which he later develops 
into a fundamental precept), he restricts himself to the narrowly 
physiological; elsewhere, his summaries have a premonitory aspect. 
His treatment of the inference “from t hc visible to the invisible,” for 
example, betrays a sympathetic attention; it is an analogical proce- 
dure that he will employ repeatedly in discussions of divine wisdom 
in later works. And when he discusses thc “generosity” of God, a 


philosophical tenet originating in Plato, he says, “Generosity is the 
bestowal of what is fitting without any prior motive,” and continues: 

The One emanates existence on all beings as it must be and in the 
measure that must be without any conceivable withholding [literally: 
hoarding] withrespect to necessity, need or embellishment; and that, 
utterly without prior motivation or advantage. Rather, His nature is a 
nature from which there flows down onto every part of His creation that 
which is most suitable for it, for He is truly generous. Indeed, the name 
“generous” applied to anyone other than Him is merely a hgure of speech. 

Maqasid, 241 

Though Ghazali opposes thc suggestion of any necessity at work 
within the divine nature, such that He “must”be generous, neverthe- 
less, he adopts certain key points here and employs tliem in his own 
way: not only the concept of divine generosity itself but even certain 
turns of phrase, such as the imputation of “hoarding.” By this is meant 
t hat if God had not produced the best world possible, He could be 
accused of “hoarding” a better one. Ghazali will appropriate this 
notion and present it verbatim in tlie Ihja’ . 


Ghazali’s second work on philosophy, mockingly entitled “The 
Incoherence of dae Philosophers,” offers a sustained attack on spe- 
cific t liescs of the falasifa which Ghazali considered botla heretical 
and downright fallacious. (The philosophers are tlic only group, by 
the way, to whom Ghazali explicitly applies the charge of “unbelief” 
( kufr ) in such works as the Fajsal [111].) He targets twenty doctrines 
in both metaphysics and natural science for demolition. His treat- 
ment is quite technical, his arguments highly intricate. Whatever 
dieir validity, tliey show how thoroughly Ghazali had mastered philo- 
sophical discourse; though he himself described the work as kalam, 
he confronts the philosophers on equal terms, using their own jargon 
and methods. And he certainly removes liis gloves. He lambasts his 
adversaries roundly, reviling them as “dimwits” and worse. 


The Philosophers as Mere Imitators 

Ghazali’s over-riding objection to t hc philosophers rests not only on 
their individual heresies but on something more problematic. In his 
preface, he accuses daem of unthinking conformism. This is dae 
taqlid, or credulous acceptance, which he decries in certain of dae 
pious; philosophy in their hands is not a religion, but a “doctrine of 
donkeys.” By the time he composed t he Tahafut Ghazali had already 
undergone a siege of severe scepticism, described in his autobiogra- 
phy, during which his own tendency to unthinking belief had “shat- 
tered like glass.” (In this sense, by a curious irony, The Incoherence may 
be considered an attack on philosophy by a radical sceptic rather tlian 
by a passionate believer: Ghazali was both, sim ultancously.) But the 
philosophers and t hcir hangers-on are guilty of the same dangerous 
tendency. They are unbelievers but“there is no basis for their unbe- 
lief other than traditional, conventional imitation, like the imitation 
of Jews and Christians”(TaAa/u£/Marmura, 2). Moreover, d \e falasija 
and their followers are overly impressed by big names: 

The source of their unbelief is their hearing high-soundinjj names such as 
“Socrates,” “Hippocrates,”“Plato,”“Aristotle,”and their likes, and the 
exaggeration and misguidedness of groups of their followers in 
describing their minds, the excellence of their principles, the exactitude 
of their geometrical, logical, natural, and metaphysical sciences. 


Not only are these miscreants guilty of servile acceptance, which 
causes diem to abandon the beliefs and practises of Islam, but they 
have exchanged the “imitation of t he true” for the “imitation of dae 
false.” Even t hc stupidest fellow “among the masses” doesn’t sink so 
low, for he has no desire “to become clever by emulating those who 
follow t h t ■ ways of error.” He remarks sarcastically, “Imbecility is thus 
nearer salvation than acumen severed [from belief]; blindness closer 
to wholeness than cross-eyed sight” (ibid . , 3) . And he goes on: 

When I perceived this vein of folly throbbing within these dimwits, I 
took it upon myself to write this book in refutation of the ancient 


philosophers, to show the incoherence of their belief and the 
contradiction of their word in matters relating to metaphysics; to 
uncover the dangers of their doctrine and its shortcomings, which in 
truth ascertainable are objects of laughter for the rational and a lesson 
for the intelligent — I mean the kinds of diverse beliefs and opinions 
they particularly hold that set them aside from the populace and the 
common run of men — relating at the same time their doctrine as it 
actually is, so as to make it clear to those who embrace unbelief 
through imitation that all significant thinkers, past and present, agree 
in believing in God and the last day; that their differences reduce to 
matters of detail extraneous to those two pivotal points . . . ; that no 
one has denied these two beliefs other than a remnant of perverse 
minds who hold lopsided opinions, who are neither noticed nor taken 
into account in the deliberations of the speculative thinkers, counted 
only among the company of evil devils and in the throng of the 

Tahajut/ Marmura, 3; modified 

The book is an attack on thc Greek philosophers, and especially 
Aristotle; the Islamic philosophers are relegated to the ranks ofbam- 
boozled imitators.The vehemence of Ghazali’s critique, which never 
flags, is important. The doctrines he assails are deleterious; diey 
tlireaten the ultimate salvation of tliose who accept thcrn. But this is 
also a form of intellectual surgery, if not outright vivisection. Only 
by excising and discarding die heretical components of philosophy 
can its valid doctrines and methods be adopted, and the more sav- 
agely this is done, thc better. No one could later accuse Ghazali of 
being “soft” on philosophy, however extensively he might come to 
draw on it. 

Heretical Doctrines 

The twenty t heses Ghazali singles out for rebuttal include sixteen 
metaphysical points and a mere four points within the domain of dae 
natural sciences. They range from issues such as the eternity of dae 
world (upheld by the philosophers, rejected by Ghazali) to God’s 


knowledge of particulars (denied by t lie philosophers, upheld by 
Ghazali) , with related assaults designed to prove tlreir incompetence 
to prove God’s oneness or to show that God is incorporeal or even to 
demonstrate tliat He is the world’s creator; diese are the metaphysi- 
cal theses. In natural science, Ghazali attacks the philosophers’ 
notion of causality; he faults diem for being unable to prove that the 
human soul is “a self-subsistent spiritual substance” and lastly, he sets 
out to refute their denial of bodily resurrection. Each of the twenty 
discussions merits close attention, particularly in conjunction witli 
Ibn Rushd’s later counter-attack.Taken as a whole, tlie book consti- 
tutes a devastating indictment. Here, however, I wish to comment on 
only one chapter, not just because it is representative and so conveys 
the davour of the work at large, but because the complexity of 
Ghazali’s approach suggests that die Tahafut is not quite as transpar- 
ent as it has usually been taken to be. 

Causalityvs “Habit” 

The seventeenth chapter of the Tahajut deals with causality and 
miracles.The philosophers affirm that: 

. . . the connection between causes and effects that one observes in exis- 
tence is a connection of necessary concomitance, so that it is within 
neither the realm of power nor within that of possibility to brinjj about 
the cause without the effect or the effect without the cause. 

Tahajut /Marmura, 166 

But this, Ghazali argues, renders miracles impossible and so is not 
only wrong but heretical. He is thinking specifically about miracles 
such as the biblical transformation of the staff into a serpent, and 
those attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, such as his splitting 
the moon; but the doctrine of the resurrection is also at stake. 
Whoever asserts a necessary connection between cause and effect in 
the realm of nature, as the philosophers do, makes such miracles 
impossible; they must be either interpreted metaphorically or 
denied outright. 


Divine causality, which both theologians and philosophers accept, 
albeit in widely divergent ways, is not at issue, but what is usually 
termed “secondary causality” (that is, tliose sequences of effects 
which seem to ripple from one cause to t he next: when I move my 
hand, the ring on my finger moves too, and so on). For die philoso- 
phers, a cosmos not bound together by interlocking chains of sec- 
ondary causality represented an absurdity; nature as well as reason 
were at stake. (Ibn Rushd — and later, Maimonides, following in his 
footsteps — argued that if you remove causality from the scheme of 
diings, you also remove rationality, for die very processes of the mind 
depend upon cause and effect, as in argument itself. ) But for the the- 
ologians, especially diose of die Ash‘arite persuasion, such a cosmos 
suggested a dangerous autonomy; a world in which necessity inheres 
in the nature of tliings infringes divine agency and compromises 

For Ash‘arites, God is t hc sole agent whose will determines and 
effects every action. What we think of as causality is nothing but 
“God’s habit” (or “custom”). The world functions as it does, with 
apparent cause and effect, only because it is God’s habit for it to do 
so. Miracles are nothing more than“breaches of habit.” There are nei- 
dier “laws of nature” nor natures intrinsic to things. God can alter His 
custom whenever He will; no reality exists in things t hemsel ves, 
despite appearances. All ultimately are fictive; subject to alteration 
or annihilation from moment to moment, and in t he twinkling of an 
eye. Things as t hcy are exist as diey do only because God creates 
t hem , atom by atom, instant by instant, in continual pulsations of His 
will. If He were to decide that t he rain should fall upward, it would 
instantly do so; this would represent a“breach of God’s habit,” a mir- 
acle, not a reversal of “nature.”What we call nature is itself nothing 
more than God’s habit. 

This is the famous “occasionalism” of doctrinaire Ash‘arism at its 
most blatant. (This is the doctrine lampooned by Maimonides in his 
Guidejor the Perplexed, where he reduces it to absurdity by noting diat 
God must re-create the atoms of a cadaver at every instant of its 
decomposition; such a prospect would not have ruffled a convinced 


Ash‘arite.) Elsewhere, Ghazali seems to affirm it unconditionally. In 
his autobiography, he affirms that “nature is totally subject to God 
Most High : it does not act of itself but is used as an instrument by 
its Creator. The sun, moon, stars, and the elements are subject 
to God’s command: none of them effects any act by and of itself” 
(Munqidh/ McCarday, 76). And in another late work, the Kitab 
al-Arba’ in (“The Book of Forty [Traditions];” Bouyges, 38; Elourani, 
299), composed sometime before 1 106, he writes: 

God wills existing things and sets things created in time in order, for 
there occur in this world and in the transcendent world neither few 
nor many, small nor great, good nor evil, benefit nor harm, belief 
nor unbelief, recognition nor denial, gain nor loss, increase nor 
diminishment, obedience nor disobedience, except as a result of 
God’s decree and predestination and wisdom and will. What He 
wishes, is; what He does not wish, is not. Not even the casual glance 
of a spectator nor the stray thought in the mind come to be outside 
the sphere of His will. He is the originator. He causes recurrence. 

He is the effecter of what He wills. 

Arba‘in , 6/ Ormsby 1984, 53—54 

Such a sweeping position would seem to obviate all secondary 
causation; even our glances and our passing tlioughts result from 
God’s will. And yet, is that what is actually meant? Perhaps the 
answer is not as straightforward as it appears. I’ll return to this 
subject in a later chapter but here Ghazali’s more detailed exposition 
in The Incoherence is apposite, for he seems to reject causality 

“In our view,” he begins , “the link between what is usually believed 
to be a cause and what is usually believed to be an effect is not neces- 
sary” (and for “necessary” he pointedly uses the philosophical term 
( daruri ) as a way of reinforcing the statement). He proceeds to a 
series of examples which fly in tlae face of common sense; he does t h i s 
deliberately, I believe, to pose the issue in as extreme a way as possi- 
ble.The examples include thirst and quenching t liirst, satiation and 
eating, burning and the touch of fire, light and sunrise, death and 


decapitation, and indeed, “everything observable among things tliat 
are linked in medicine, astronomy, arts and crafts” ( Tahajut / 
Marmura, 170).These events are connected solely because God has 
decreed tlieir connection. If God so willed, He could create fullness 
without food or preserve life after beheading or any of the others; 
diere is no inherent causal connection. 

The Denial of Causality 

Ghazali’s most famous — or perhaps, notorious — example is tliat of 
fire and cotton. Cottonburns when exposed to a flame, but tliis is not 
inevitable. Cotton could burn without being set on fire.The philoso- 
phers deny this; the flame, and that alone, they say, is the agent of 
burning and burning cannot occur otherwise. These phenomena 
coincide, Ghazali counters, but tliat doesn’t prove that they are 
causally linked. Here he introduces an analogy drawn, as is often his 
wont, from sexual life : the father ejaculates sperm into the womb but 
if conception occurs, it is not the fat her who has produced tlie son; 
ratlier, the son’s faculties come to be along witli, but not because of, 
the father’s action.The action is coincident ratlier tlian causative. Or, 
a person blind from hirth, who suddenly recovers his sight, imagines 
that the agent of his new vision is the removal of tlie film that covered 
his eyes; but at sunset, when light dwindles, he comes to realize that 
it is the sun, rather than himself, which is responsible for his vision. 
We continually mistake apparent causes for the true cause, which is 
God alone. 

Even here, die matter is not straightforward. In the diirty-fifth 
book of the Ihya’ , Ghazali invokes the same examples, but to differ- 
ent ends.There he says: 

If you were to wait for God Most Hijjh to create satiety in you without 
bread, or to create in bread a motion towards you, or to enjoin an 
angel to chew it for you and see that it reaches your stomach — that 
would simply display your ignorance of the practise of God Most High. 

Ihya’ / Burrell 2001 , 74 


God could do all these tliings, but He does not; they would be con- 
trary to His “habit” ( sunnah ). To suppose otherwise is “idiocy.”This 
does not change die underlying point: God’s habit may be as pre- 
dictable and unchanging as any causal laws of nature. But it is inter- 
esting, and not often noted, that Ghazali, no doubt deliberately, uses 
the same examples in his later work to uphold a form of causality as 
he had adduced in his earlier work to deny it. 

This distinction would have some surprising consequences at later 
stages of the Ash‘arite tradition. For, while causality of a qualified 
sort would be accepted, it would also be severed from the actual 
world. For example, the theologian ‘Adud al-Din al-Iji, in thc four- 
teenth century, would defend die principles of such sciences as 
astronomy but at the same time would state that they “are imaginary 
things t h a t have no internal existence, mere imaginings more tenu- 
ous than a spider’s web” (Endress, 1 59— 60). That is, causality might 
be employed within t he theoretical confines of a scientific discipline 
but not extrapolated beyond it. And a century later, the astronomer 
and theologian ‘ Ali al-Qushji, writing in Istanbul, would go so far as 
to declare that “what is stated in the science of astronomy does not 
depend upon physical and metaphysical premises,” an astonishing 
remark only conceivable in a world-view which admitted causality as 
an indispensable construct while simultaneously abolishing it from 
reality ( Ibid .). 

Ghazali distinguishes further between t hosc philosophers who 
hold that effects occur because they “emanate from the bestower of 
forms” and those who maintain that they come about“necessarily and 
by nature .” The “bestower of forms” is the Agent Intellect in the Neo- 
Platonic system, through whom all knowledge in our “sphere below 
the moon”is transmitted to us; Ghazali equates tlais with the media- 
tion of an angel. If this is accepted, it is no longer possible to argue 
that fire causes burning or tlaat medicine produces health; these 
effects are bestowed angelically rather tlaan occurring inherently. 
Those of tlie second opinion, however, entangle themselves in con- 
tradictions. For when they try to explain how Abraham fell into 
the fire witliout burning, t hey must argue either that t he fire was 


heatless — an impossibility — or that Abraham himself changed, in 
essence and in form, into stone or something else impervious to fire 
— another impossibility. Against the first group, it must be said that 
if the Agent can create the burning, then he can also create not- 
burning, even when something combustible is touched by fire. 

Counter-Argument and Caricature 

In addressing the second group — his true opponents, who uphold an 
intrinsic and necessary causality — Ghazali introduces a strange 
counter-argument, which he puts into his adversaries’ mouths. In 
effect, he parodies the Ash‘arite position, as it might be seen by an 
outsider, as leading to “distasteful contrarieties.”The full passage is 

If one denies that the effects follow necessarily from their causes and 
relates them to the will of their Creator, the will havinsj no specific 
desisjnated course but capable of varyinsj and changing in kind, then 
let each of us allow the possibility of there being in front of him fero- 
cious beasts, rasjing fires, high mountains, or enemies ready with their 
weapons and he does not see them because God does not create [the 
sight] of them for him. And if someone leaves a book in the house, let 
him allow as possible its change on his returning home into a beardless 
slave boy — intelligent, busy with his tasks — or into an animal; or if he 
leaves a boy in the house, let him allow the possibility of his changing 
into a dog; or if he leaves ashes, the possibility of its change into musk; 
and let him allow the possibility of stone changing into gold and gold 
into stone. If asked about any of this, he ought to say : ‘I don’t know 
what’s in the house at the moment. All I know is that I left a book in the 
house but maybe now it’s a horse which has fouled my library with its 
piss and dung, and I’ve left a jar of water in the house too, but it may 
have turned into an apple tree by now. God is capable of everything; it 
isn’t necessary for a horse to be created from sperm or a tree from 
seed. In fact, it isn’t necessary for either of them to be created from 
anything. Maybe God has created things that didn’t exist before.’ 
Moreover, if such a person looks at somebody he has just seen and is 
asked whether such a person is a creature that was born, let him 


hesitate and say that it’s not impossible that some fruit in the 
marketplace has changed into a human, in fact, this very human. For 
God has power over every possible thinjr, and this thing is possible. 

Tahafut/Marmura , 173—74; modiiied 

What is remarkable about this passage is not only that it is humorous 
— a rare enough event in philosophy — but that the humor is directed 
against Ghazali’s own nominal position. It is a caricature of the 
Ash‘arite position, though ostensibly introduced for pre-emptive 
purposes. It reduces the (Ash‘arite) theological notion of “intellec- 
tual admissibility” to apparent absurdity. This notion implied that 
whatever can be thought can also be; indeed, possibilities them- 
selves, even when merely entertained in t he mind, enjoyed a certain 
shadowy foretaste of existence, like players waiting in tlie wings for 
some unexpected cue.This was a corollary to the conviction that for 
God, all things were possible; whatever might be intellectually 
admissible, however improbable, was a potential object of God’s 
power.To philosophers, tliis was a ridiculous concept; it was a func- 
tion of imagination or fantasy — a lower order of cognition associated 
always with matter — rather than of intellect. 

Tone is often significant in Ghazali’s work. He deploys sarcasm, 
satire, irony, and exaggeration to make his points as much as sober 
argument. Here the tone is a little burlesque: he shows t he absurdi- 
ties to which a narrow AslTarite occasionalist position can lead by 
placing tlie attack in the mouth of his opponent, but the comical 
touches — the horse defecating in the library, the fruit that turns 
into a man — suggest that he appreciated — and perhaps even partly 
shared — this sardonic view. He simply has too much fun with the 
proposition for it to be a mere straw man.To be sure, he goes on to 
argue that while thcse absurdities are possibilities in the strict sense, 
we can be reasonably sure that they will never occur, because they 
have never occurred in the past. God could make t hem happen but 
He does not, if we are to judge by His past habits. 

The question of causality is still a vexed question in the study of 
Ghazali. He seems to reject it in certain passages and in othcrs, slyly, 


to admit it.There is strong evidence that he accepted certain aspects 
of secondary causality. As Richard M. Frank has pointed out, Ghazali 
often “employs vague formulations . . . in such a way as to give the 
impression of asserting traditional teaching widiout actually doing so” 
(Frank 1992,36). And he continues by pointing out that what Ghazali : 

. . . attempts to do . . . is to treat the traditional formulations concerninjj 
God’s creative activity in the world and Avicenna’s account of the 
determinate operation of the orders of secondary causes as they 
descend from the first cause as two alternative but lundamentally 
equivalent descriptions of the same phenomena.To accomplish this, 
however, he reinterprets the former in terms of the latter and in so 
doing r ej ects one of the basic tenets of classical Ash ‘ ar ism , e . g. , the 
radical occasionalism according to which no created entity, whether an 
atom, a body, or an accident, has any causal effect . . . on the being of 
any other. 

For Frank, Ghazali’s purpose was none other than “to adapt the tra- 
ditional language and formulations to his own, quasi-Avicennian 
vision of creation” (Ibid.). This seems true but Frank doesn’t go far 
enough in his analysis. 

In his formidable response to Ghazali, penned a half century later, 
Ibn Rushd would dismiss the entire seventeenth chapter of tlre 
Tahajut as mere “sophistry.” FIe says: 

Intelligence is nothing but the perception of things with their causes, 
and in this it distinguishes itself from all the other iaculties of 
apprehension, and he who denies causes must deny the intellect. Logic 
Implies the existence of causes and effects, and knowledge of these 
effects can only be rendered perfect through knowledge of their 
causes. Denial of cause implies the denial of knowledge, and denial of 
knowledge implies that nothing in this world can really be known, and 
that what is supposed to be known is nothing but opinion, that neither 
proof nor definition exist, and that the essential attributes which 
compose definitions are void.The man who denies the necessity of any 
item of knowledge must admit that even this, his own affirmation, is 
not necessary knowledge. 

Tahafut al-tahajut, tr. Van den Bergh, 1: 3 19 


As Ibn Rushd points out, to reject causality as that force which acts in 
a predetermined manner dependent upon the specific natures of 
things, is to deny that anything can be distinguishable from anything 
else, and “all things would be one” ( Ibid . , 1:318). But this, of course, 
is precisely what Ghazali brings out in his satirical portrayal of the 
Ash‘arite position, adroitly placed in the mouth of his opponent: a 
pineapple might turn into a man, gold could become granite, a slave 
boy change into a horse. 

A Sceptical Resolution 

Ghazali’s purpose in this bizarre chapter appears to be twofold. I 
would suggest that its doubleness of intent is significant. 

Initially, Ghazali seems to deny secondary causality in the most 
exaggerated manner. Who believes tlaat beheading doesn’t necessar- 
ily cause death?You could argue that just because beheading invari- 
ably leads to deatla, that doesn’t make it a cause; but tliis seems to me 
to misunderstand Ghazali’s intention in introducing such examples. 
Under the cover of a denial, he smuggles in a satiric summary of the 
Ash‘arite doctrine, a caricature immune to criticism once placed in 
the mouth of an adversary. His objective, I believe, is to cast doubt on 
both positions: the secondary causality of philosophy and the occa- 
sionalism of tlieology. It is a fundamentally sceptical objective. We 
cannot truly know, beyond sheer statistical probability, whether an 
effect occurs because of an antecedent cause or as a result of “God’s 
custom.” Here, however, his intention seems to me to be more radi- 
cal than has previously been suggested. His position is fundamentally 
sceptical, but the scepticism is turned, not against the truths of faith, 
but against the self-assured certainties of t hc philosophers. For, in 
effect, there is no absolute way to establish beyond a statistical 
certainty whether certain conjoined events occur because of an 
inherent causality or because of“God’s custom.” Their outward man- 
ifestation is t lic same in either case. And I would argue hirther that for 
Ghazali — the problem of miracles aside — t hc difference was irrele- 
vant. He wanted to demonstrate that it is not possible to prove the 


existence of inherent cause and effect in things, and he succeeds in 
casting doubt on tliis; but at the same time, he wanted to expose t ht- 
untenable consequences of tlie Ash‘arite position.The upshot is nei- 
t her to disprove secondary causality definitively, nor to prove the 
operation of “God’s habit,” but to demonstrate that neither can be 
established widi complete certainty. His object is to upset confident 
assumptions, to startle lazy thinking, to shatter conformism. It rep- 
resents a strategic deployment of doubt in the search for what can be 

In odier words, it isn’t so much causality that Ghazali finds prob- 
lematic as t he element of indwelling necessity in t he presumption. 
His arguments have the result both of confusing the issue — quite 
deliberately, in my opinion — and of clearing the ground for a more 
subtle and flexible version of causality. This, however, he would 
develop only later, after a shattering experience which prompted 
him to abandon many of his earlier assumptions, only to reassemble 
diem, in transformed guise, under die overarching aegis of Sufi 
mysticism. It was a solution born out of crisis. 



The crisis which led to Ghazali ’s adoption of tlie Sufi way began in 
July 1095; according to the Islamic calendar, Rajab 488. His stipula- 
tion of the precise date is significant: Rajab is one of the two sacred 
months in tlie calendar — Ramadan is the other — during which 
reflection and repentance are urged upon believers.The crisis, which 
lasted for some six months, led him to abandon his prestigious posi- 
tion at the Nizamiyya madrasa in Baghdad, relinquishing his duties in 
favor of his younger brother Ahmad. Secretly, amid a buzz of specu- 
lation by colleagues and students as to his true motives and condi- 
tions, Ghazali slipped out of Baghdad and embarked on a life of 
prayer and seclusion, which would last for some eleven years. 
Though dae crisis is confirmed by scattered reports from a few of his 
students, almost all our information comes from Ghazali’s own 
account, in his narrative The Deliverer Jrom Error ( al-Munqidh min 
al-dalal ), composed several years later when the searing experience 
could be “recollected in tranquillity.” (The title of the work alludes to 
Qur. 3:103: “You were on the brink of an abyss of fire and He deliv- 
ered you from it.”) 

Here is how Ghazali describes tlie onset of his crisis: 

I wavered incessantly between the strong pull of worldly desires and 
the promptings of the next world for almost six months from the 
month of Rajab 488.Then, in that month, I crossed the boundary from 
free will into constraint. God locked my tongue so that I could not 



teach. I used to exert all my effort so that I might be able to teach for 
one day . . . but my tongue could not master a single word. 

Munqidh, 37 

He consulted doctors but they couldn’t cure him. He parodies their 
diagnoses in his account: “This is something which has settled in his 
heart and crept from it into his humors,”he has them muttering. No 
doubt t h c ■ sc doctors mentioned “melancholy.” Ibn Sina, in his great 
Canon oj Medicine, had already described the symptoms of what he 
called “malankhuliyya," using die Greek term transliterated into 
Arabic; tliey correspond in part to Ghazali’s symptoms. Moreover, 
according to the tenth-century physician Ishaq ibn ‘Imran, “If doc- 
tors, mathematicians or astronomers meditate, brood, memorize 
and investigate too much, they can fall prey to melancholy.” It was a 
condition to which dae learned were especially prone. Ghazali’s sud- 
den loss of speech during his breakdown isn’t one of its symptoms; 
and yet, earlier experts had noted that such aphasia could be “caused 
by fear and perplexity.” Certainly, bodi emotions dominated Ghazali 
at the time. 

His crisis was precipitated, Ghazali claimed, by dae fact that he 
had come to accept Sufism as die ultimate path to truth but could 
not bring himself to embrace thc Sufi padi.That demanded renunci- 
ation.The sacrifice seemed too harsh. It was neither the asceticism 
of Sufism, nor even t he requirement that he renounce the comforts 
of family life, which deterred him. Rather, his attachment to his own 
status, to thc prestige of his position — indeed, to the ambition 
diat had propelled him from obscurity to renown — formed dae 
true obstacles to renunciation. He could not bring himself to give 
up the acclaim he had won at such cost. To act on his new-found 
knowledge demanded t liat he embrace a life of obscurity and lowli- 
ness, diat he no longer dazzle t hrongs of adoring students or play an 
induential role at court. Here is how he put it in his account, written 

I carefully examined my situation and saw that I was immersed in 
attachments which encompassed me from all sides. I considered my 


activities — the best of them beinsj public and private instruction — and 
saw that in them I was applying myself to sciences which were trivial as 
well as useless on this pilgrimage to the next world. When I thought 
about my intentions in my public teaching, 1 realized that it was not 
motivated purely to God but was prompted and driven by a quest for 
fame and wide-spread prestige. 

Munqidh , 36 / McCarthy, 9 1 ; modilied 

To embrace the Sufi way entailed an acceptance of anonymity; it 
required “correctness toward God the Exalted and withdrawal from 
mankind ,”as he put it later ( Letter , 38); hence, the suppression, ifnot 
the annihilation, of his public self. 

More riskily, it involved rejection of powerful patrons. As he says 
again in“Letter to a Disciple,”the Sufi must: 

. . . have nothing to do with princes and rulers, nor see them, because 
the spectacle of them, gatherings with them and socializing with them 
are a serious danger. 11’ you are put to the test by this, avoid praising 
them and complimenting them, for God the Exalted is angered if a 
wrongdoer or tyrant is praised. 

Letter, 52 

This injunction did not prevent Ghazali from composing a treatise 
of admonition, in Persian, for the Seljuq Sultan in his later years 
and yet, as we shall see from his letters, his communications widi 
the powerful underwent a dramatic change after his espousal of 

There may have been anodier factor in his breakdown which, so 
far as I know, hasn’t been mentioned before. Between 1094 and 
1 095 , Ghazali penned no fewer tlian eight or nine works; and, as we 
know, he had devoted himself for three years to an intensive study of 
philosophy. His productions from tliis period include The Intentions of 
the Philosophers and The Incoherence oj the Philosophers , two books on 
logic, a polemic against die Isma‘ilis (known as the Mustazhiri because 
supposedly written at the behest ofthe Caliph al-Mustazhir), The Just 
Balance in Matters ojBelieJ his manual of dieology, and The Criterion of 


Action, his work on practical ethics.This is an astounding record of 

Even if we assume that The lntentions was begun earlier, tlie com- 
position of any of the other treatises might well have occupied an 
average scholar for more than a single year. Ghazali wrote tliern 
while fully engaged in his teaching and juridical activities, as well as 
in his responsibilities to bot h Sultan and Caliph. Moreover, each book 
is concerned with a demanding topic, sometimes requiring mastery 
of intricate technical terminology, and each is meticulously and 
densely argued. Like other medieval Muslim authors, Ghazali com- 
posed quickly partly because he drew on earlier authors, often using 
large chunks of their writings verbatim. Even so, I can think of no 
other example in intellectual history, East orWest, of such intense 
and prolific engagement over so short a span of time, and with such 
fruitful results (with t he possible exception of Kierkegaard’s brief 
and concentrated period of productivity between 1 840 and 1 844) . It 
doesn’t seem far-fetched to suggest tliat Ghazali was suffering from 
sheer mental and physical exhaustion and that this may have con- 
tributed to his spiritual distress. 


Ghazali never mentions exhaustion; he presents his state as an inner 
conflict displaying die symptoms of an illness.This is telling. No motif 
plays a larger part in his later writings tlian illness; no figure is invoked 
more often t han the physician. The contrast between sickness and 
health is played out widi undagging ingenuity in his Sufi works 
( t hough he had drawn on it in earlier writings) .The human body, both 
in its miraculous construction and in the maladies that can assail it, 
provides a seemingly inexliaustible supply of analogies, maxims and 
metaphors, and he invokes die body repeatedly. This is good, 
homiletic technique; notliing is more familiar to us than our own 
flesh, and analogies spun from it tend to carry conviction. But 
Ghazali’s repeated references to the body, to health and disease, are 


so frequent as to suggest a deeper, more personal motivation. 
Sometimes the cumulative effect of his medical references leads one 
to wonder if he were not something of a hypochondriac. 

I think tliere are at least two persuasive reasons for his reliance on 
this motif: first, he presents the aspect of a man who has come through 
a terrible ordeal. He is someone who has regained healdi after debili- 
tating sickness. As noted earlier, liis own student remarked that he 
seemed to be a man “who had recovered from madness.” (Perhaps it is 
significant t h at later Ghazali would remark, “Knowledge witliout 
action is madness” [Letter, 1 6] and use die same word which his pupil 
had applied to him; when he merely knew wit hout acting upon his 
knowledge, he was perhaps, in his own view, spiritually a little “mad”) 
The move from sickness to healdi is analogous to t he ascent from igno- 
rance to knowledge, from doubt to certainty. For Ghazali, as for many 
odier medieval Muslim thinkers, ignorance is a spiritual ailment. To 
give but one example: he informs his unnamed correspondent t liat “t he 
disease of ignorance is of four kinds.The first of diem is curable, and t he 
rest incurable” ( Letter , 44); he dien proceeds to elaborate tliesc episte- 
mological maladies. In die autobiography, he describes his youthlul 
bout of scepticism as “a puzzling disease” of which God Himself 
“healed” him. After his later crisis, his simultaneous recovery of bot h 
intellectual and physical health must have impressed liim profoundly. 

Second, Islamic philosophers had routinely drawn analogies 
between healdi and sickness, knowledge and ignorance. For some, 
like the physician and philosopher Abu Bakr Zakariya’ al-Razi a cen- 
tury before, philosophy embodied the medicine which the human 
soul required; t hrougli philosophy man could become whole and 
sound and t hcrcby achieve redemption. It was certainly no coinci- 
dence that Ibn Sina, himself an accomplished physician, titled his 
great work al-ShiJa' (“The Healing”). Through die right use of the 
intellect, through reason and knowledge, human beings can ascend 
to thcir proper perfection. The fact tliat most Islamic philosophers 
were physicians first, and philosophers second, reinforced this con- 
nection.This may have given Ghazali a strong motive for drawing on 
medical analogies and for his much-loved contrast between the 


doctor who heals the body and the doctor who restores the soul.This 
is, of course, an ancient and much- uscd theme but it is one which 
Ghazali employs too often to be merely rlietorica I . Throuahout dae 
lhya’ he plays on this contrast, sometimes to a sententious degree. 
For him, in the end, it is not the philosophers, but the prophets — and 
pre-eminently, tlie Prophet Muhammad — who are t he true “doctors 
who treat the illnesses of hearts,”for they have been given insight into 
a further dimension of reality “beyond tlie intellect.” 


The autobiography was probably written between 1106 and 1109. 
During this period, only a few years before his death, Ghazali was 
back in Nishapur, directing novices and perhaps still teaching. It’s 
possible that he wrote the work for his students; he addresses it to his 
“brother in religion” who has requested that he write the account — 
a conventional pretext. But tlie book is clearly intended to be an 
edifying testimonial from which otlaers may profit. 

Like so much of his later writing, the autobiography is intensely 
passionate. It has been suggested that Ghazali was inspired to tell his 
story in imitation of Ibn Sina who left behind an unfinished autobiog- 
raphy, but t he two books could not be more different. Ghazali offers 
a compelling personal account of two distinct crises within a narra- 
tive of quest and bafflement, of doubt verging on despair, of scepti- 
cism carried to the point of madness, and of final vindication and t he 
promise of deliverance. By contrast, Ibn Sina confesses to only one 
episode of uncertainty in the magisterial progress of his career (when 
he found himself unable to comprehend Aristotle’s Metaphysics after 
reading it forty times!). Ghazali reveals himself as lacerated by 
uncertainties. Ibn Sina’s sense of his own superiority appears unshak- 
able. Ghazali (no shrinking violet) lays bare the moral flaws, together 
with tlie conflicts, tlaat tormented him. Ibn Sina’s account is linear 
and chronological. Ghazali’s is structurally complex and quite artful 


in design; it is a consciously written, and artistically conceived, 
account, of surprising subtlety. Finally, Ghazali’s narrative is not 
entirely what it seems (as Ibn Sina’s is): the Munqidh is a personal 
story but it is also a cunningly designed testimonial in which t he nar- 
rator emerges both as a specific individual and as a moral example, an 
exemplum. Ghazali is creating himself as a spiritual type even as he is 
supplying exact factual details (Ormsby 1991, 133—134). 

The Double Voice of the Narrative 

The power of t he work derives from this double approach. We wit- 
ness a living man, with doubts, faults, and aspirations, slowly trans- 
formed into the pattern of a saint. Earlier Sufi biographies had 
included stories of tlie saints, usually chosen to illustrate and exem- 
plify some instance of virtue; Ghazali would insert many of these into 
the Ihya ' and otlier of his Sufi works. FIowever, in his autobiography, 
the third person of hagiography has given way to the immediacy of 
the first person: tlic saint steps forward and speaks in his own dis- 
tinctive voice. “I am the man; this is what I suffered; this is what I have 
found,” the narrative seems to say, and the effect is electrifying; an 
effect heightened by t hc beauty of thc writing. The beauty of 
Ghazali’s best prose lies in its urgency. This is nowhere seen better 
than in the autobiography, with its language so poised and alert that 
we have the impression of catching a mind in the very swirl of its 
thoughts. In one passage, he writes: “I was convinced that I stood on 
the edge of a crumbling cliff and was coming close to hellhre if I did 
not take care to repair my inner state,” and later, he exclaims, “To the 
road! To the road! Only a little life is left and you stand on the verge 
of a great voyage and all your knowledge and your deeds are nothing 
but sham and pretense!” (Munqidh /McCarthy, 91—92; modified). 
The note of urgency is calculated — Ghazali is an artful author — but 
that does not make it any less authentic, or persuasive. 

Ghazali describes two crises which befell him. In the first, some- 
time in his youth, he experienced an ordeal of radical scepticism. 
Even as a young man he had been driven by a quest for knowledge; 


not just any knowledge, but tliat which leads to certainty. He had “a 
thirst to grasp the true nature of things.” His deepest desire — the 
word he uses also means “instinct” — was to pursue truth relentlessly. 
God Himself had implanted this desire in him. He fu rt her describes 
himself as a bold and fearless diver who seeks out the deptlis of dre 
sea. It is an image which recurs throughout his work; in the last book 
he wrote, a warning against the dangers of dialectical theology, he 
speaks contemptuously of those who hug the shore for safety. The 
image reverberates in subsequent Sufi literature: the Persian poet 
Hafiz, influenced boda by Ghazali and by his brother Ahmad, will 
speak, over two centuries later, of: 

Black night, the terror of breakers and the whirling sea— what dread! 

How can those who cling to the shore even guess what we feel? 

The personal accent, sustained daroughout, serves a strategicpurpose. 
In earlier books, whether on t heology or logic or philosophy, Ghazali 
had adopted a dispassionate stance; he expounded a doctrine which he 
then accepted or rejected. Here, however, he explores theology, phi- 
losophy, Isma‘ili doctrine, and Sufism from his own personal vantage 
point.This adds weight, as well as urgency, to his arguments. His obser- 
vations aren’t merely academic forays. He has explored t licsc paths 
himself; his critiques have die force of personal experience. 


Unlike his later crisis of 1 095 , precipitated by the discovery of trut li , 
Ghazali’s early crisis was, first and foremost, one of doubt. As a 
teenager, he was shaken by a prolonged siege of scepticism. Nothing 
seemed certain.The information given by the senses was suspect; the 
senses erred, they could be deceived.To the naked eye, a star seems 
no larger than a coin, a stick plunged in water appears bent. But 
mathematical proofs make clear that the star must be bigger than the 
earth and t hc science of optics explains diffraction.The intellect thus 
corrects t he senses. But is the intellect itself wholly trustworthy? 


Ghazali took refuge in “First Principles or a priori truths (“the 
whole is greater than its parts,” etc.), but these too were unhelpful, 
for doubts arose. If tlae senses could deceive, might not the intellect 
also go astray? Ghazali began to envisage a potentially endless 
sequence of perceptions exposed as misperceptions by some as yet 
undiscovered arbiter of truth; he experienced an intellectual vertigo. 
As he writes: 

Perhaps behind the perception of the intellect is yet another arbiter. 
When it appears, it will prove the intellect wrong in its judgrnent, just 
as the arbiter of intellect appeared and proved sense false in its judg- 
ment. The fact that this perception does not appear does not prove its 

Munqidh , 1 3/McCarthy, 65 

By Ghazali’s time, scepticism had a long history in Islamic discourse. 
Probably the best-known early sceptic was the ninth-century 
Baghdadian, Salih Ibn ‘Abd al-Quddus, who composed a Book of 
Doubts. His stated object was to instill doubt inhis readers. Ashe said: 
“Whoever reads it, doubts concerning what exists until he fancies 
that it does not exist, and concerning what does not exist until he 
thinks daat it does exist” (Van Ess 1968, 1—18). As often happens — 
think of Samuel Johnson kicking a stone to refute Berkeley ’s idealism 
— an unkind critic mocked Salih on the death of his son; if everything 
was doubtful, was not his son’s death as well? There are scattered 
reports of scepticism, and worse, in writings attributed to such 
supposed renegades as Ibn al-Rawandi. Ghazali survived his 
sceptical crisis and it has been claimed that in so doing, he brought 
the shaky tradition of systematic doubt both to a culmination and to 
an end. 

This is perhaps overstated. I would argue that Ghazali retained 
much of his sceptical attitude after his first crisis, but that he applied 
its caustic techniques, not to the truths of faith, but to the various 
schools of tliought and tlie different disciplines which he explored. 
He never fully shook off his distrust of formal reasoning, even when 
he relied on it and encouraged otliers to employ it.Thoughhe praised 


reason, and applied it rigorously, he remained cautious of its absolute 
claims. This may explain why, even in impassioned discourse, he 
remains hard-headed; he displays a fine sensitivity to bunkum and 
exposes it without remorse. He follows this course, not only in 
deflating the pretensions of theology or die suspect notions of die 
philosophers, but also in dealing with various Sufi tenets. In this 
respect, he can describe himself, in t he autobiography — witli partic- 
ular reference to philosophy — as an intellectual snake-handler who 
knows how to “separate the antidote from the poison” or, even more 
mundanely, as a money-changer skilled in distinguishing the coun- 
terfeit from the true (Munqidh /McCarthy, 81).The lucidity ofa scep- 
tical perspective was what enabled him to extract the venom from 
philosophy and turn it into an antidote; that is t he positive side of liis 
doubting. But in general, there is a corrosive quality to his intellectu- 
alism which persists to the end as a distinctive faculty of subtle dis- 
cernment. This ability may owe much to his youthful agonies of 


One of our commonest experiences supports his suspicion of knowl- 
edge conventionally acquired. We all dream, yet dreams reveal how 
precarious our vaunted knowledge can be. In dreams we believe in 
t he truth of events that waking reveals as illusory. How can we know 
diat what we believe when awake is not also illusory, in relation to 
some as yet unrevealed truth? Dreaming is significant because 
Ghazali, like Ibn Sina before him, found the phenomenon puzzling, 
holding t hat die senses were inoperative during sleep. Knowledge 
gained through dreams appeared to circumvent the vigilance of dae 
waking senses. Moreover, according to one report, Ghazali first 
experienced the call to Sufism through a divinely inspired dream 
(Macdonald, 89—91). In die lhya ’ , he will declare that“every dream 
has its cause in God.” When, after his decade of seclusion, die Seljuq 
vizier invited him to return to teaching, he was induenced to do so by 


the dreams of“certain godly men” (Ormsby 2007). The subject of 
dreams thus bears a considerable emotional charge for him. In the 
autobiography he writes: 

Don’t you see that when you are asleep you believe certain things and 
imagine certain circumstances and believe they are fixed and lasting and 
entertain no doubts about that being their status?Then you wake up and 
know that all your imaginings and beliefs were groundless and insub- 
stantial. So while everything you believe through sensation or intellec- 
tion in your waking state may be true in relation to that state, what 
assurance have you that you may not suddenly experience a state which 
would have the same relation to your waking state as the latter has to 
your dreaming, and your waking state would be dreaming in relation to 
that new and lurther state? If you found yourseh in such a state, you 
would be sure that all your rational beliefs were insubstantial fancies. 

Munqidh , 1 3/McCarthy, 65 

Ghazali ’s dilemma is reminiscent of tlaat posed by t he ancient Chinese 
philosopher Chuang-Tzu (though there is, of course, no connection 
between tliem!). Chuang-Tzu had a dream in which he was trans- 
formed into a butterfly. When he awoke, he wondered, “How do I 
know that I am not now a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang-Tzu?” 
Ghazali, in one of his characteristic transpositions, affirms tlaat 
dreams, however tlaey may baffle our waking minds, are not only dae 
best proof of tlie prophetic faculty but reveal to us tlaat there is indeed 
a stage of knowledge “beyond the intellect” (Ormsby 2007). 

His first crisis was resolved as suddenly as it occurred. Ghazali is 
cryptic about the outcome, remarking only tlaat: 

. . . this malady was mysterious and lasted for almost two months. 
During that time I was a sceptic, though not in utterance and doctrine. 
At last God cured me of that illness. My soul was restored to health 
and soundness and I again accepted the self-evident data of reason, 
relying on them with assurance and certainty. And yet, that wasn’t 
achieved by constructing a proof or assembling an argument. Rather, it 
was the result of a light which God cast into my heart. 

Munqidh /McCarthy, 66; modiiied 


During tliis crisis, Ghazali remained at heart a sceptic, accepting reli- 
gious trutli only, as he says, in“verbal expression.” This is a startling 
disclosure; and yet, his blunt acknowledgement of near-disbelief 
lends added force to his subsequent surrender to a more compelling 
form of truth. He had visited the depths; only the strange light com- 
ing directly from God Himself had delivered him. 

The experience helps to clarify Ghazali’s cautious attitude 
towards rationalism in general and theology in particular. As he put it 
in the autobiography, “Whoever thinks that illumination depends 
upon written proofs, narrows the vast compassion of God” (Ormsby 
1991, 140) . Like all scholars of his class and time, Ghazali was a thor- 
oughly bookish man; his intellectual voracity drove him to read 
everything he could lay his hands on. Nevertheless, he understood 
that books alone do not lead to truth, let alone to salvation. In tlaat 
case, paradise would be open exclusively to the learned (a thought 
tliat surely appalled him, given his opinion of scholars). Ghazali’s 
sense of tlae unimaginable scope of God’s mercy, as well as his own 
considerable compassion for people from all walks of life, denied 
such a limitation. (In this, he resembles Thomas a Kempis, who 
would later remark, in his Imitation of Christ, that at the Last 
Judgment we won’t be asked what books we’ve read but what 
actions we’ve performed.) Ghazali remarks, “Even if you studied for 
a hundred years and collected a thousand books, you would not be 
eligible for tlae mercy of God the Exalted except through action” 
( Letter , 8). From books and book-learning we get knowledge, but 
tliat alone cannot lead to salvation; for that, action informed by 
knowledge is required. 


Ever-systematic, for all his fervor, Ghazali examined four possible 
ways to the truth. These were theology ( Kalam ), Isma‘ili teaching, 
philosophy ( Falsafa ), and Sufism. Each way offered a distinctive 
approach. As he describes them, theology represented the way of 


“independent judgment and reasoning,” Isma‘ili doctrine relied 
on authoritative and privileged knowledge, as imparted by an 
Imam, philosophy presented itself as based on logic and demonstra- 
tion, and Ĕnally, Sufism held out t he hope of vision and illumination. 
Each way stood in a different relation to reason.Theology relied on 
reason for polemical purposes, philosophy made it the highest 
good and the surest path to salvation, Isma‘ilism made it dependent 
on authority, Sufism sought to transcend it. I have already discussed 
two of tlie four ways — theology and philosophy — and will continue 
to refer to them. Ghazali’s Sufism will be treated in thc next 
chapter. His views on Isma‘ili thought require a brief discussion at 
this point. 

Ghazali and the “Batiniyah” 

Ghazali uses several terms to designate — and denigrate — his 
Isma‘ili opponents. Invariably his labels are charged with contempt 
(Mitha, 19). Sometimes he calls tliem “esotericists” ( Batinijja in 
Arabic, from “batin,” meaning “inner” or “hidden”), that is, those 
who hold t hat reality is compounded of esoteric trutlis known 
only to a designated spiritual leader or Imam. Ele also terms them 
“advocates of authoritative teaching” ( Ta ‘limiyya in Arabic, from the 
word for “instruction”) to emphasize t heir dependence on secret 
doctrine imparted by an infallible leader. For him, they represent 
the ultimate instance of taqlid, understood in its most derogatory 
sense of “servile acceptance .” They are proponents of a trntli 
handed down by authority, based neither on reason, independent 
judgment, nor mystical insight, as in the other three traditions he has 

This is a partial view of Isma‘ili t hough t, based on the doctrines 
propounded by Elasan-i Sabah, the mysterious leader of the Nizari 
Isma‘ilis in Syria, who represented a pressing threat to the Seljuqs. 
Elasan taught that human beings had to have a divinely guided 
teacher, since reason, by itself, could not grasp the truths of 
religion; his mistrust of unaided reason oddly mirrors Ghazali’s own 


misgivings. For Hasan, such a teacher must be at once reliable and 
autlaoritative; moreover, there can be only one such teacher in any 
age — a proposition which tacitly sets at naught the authority, so 
prized by Sunni Muslims, of sanctioned scholars of law and theology 
(a class which, as we have seen, Ghazali also attacks). For Hasan, as 
for other Shi‘ites, Twelvers or Seveners, the crucial problem lay in 
the accurate recognition of the true teacher, or Imam (Daftary, 
369—370). As I noted in the Introduction, Ghazali’s attacks on t he 
Isma‘ilis, not only in his autobiography but in several polemical trea- 
tises, must be seen in tliis context. 

Two factors should be kept in mind when considering Ghazali’s 
complex attitude toward the Isma‘ilis. First, for all his scornful 
denunciations of Isma‘ili doctrine, Ghazali betrays t h e influence of 
tliat tradition in many passages of liis writing. He acknowledges in t he 
autobiography tliat he “had already been struck by some of their 
novel utterances” (Munqi d/i/McCartliy, 82). More fundamentally, 
even the autobiograpliical form which he chose for the Munqidh had 
Isma‘ili antecedents of which he was surely aware (Hodgson, 2: 
180—181). Perhaps too the defining concept of Isma‘ilism, that the 
world demands interpretive explanation — the process known as 
tawil or esoteric interpretation — was one such “novel utterance;” for 
it, or something quite similar, plays an important role in Ghazali’s 
Sufi speculations. 

There is a vital distinction to be drawn. Whereas Isma‘ilis tended 
to believe in an endlessly stratified series of hidden trutlis, known 
only to the designated Imam, Ghazali believed that the world was 
potentially transparent; tliere were secrets but they were discover- 
able by “the eyes of the heart ,”And yet, his recurrent insistence on the 
innumerable instances of divine wisdom, lovingly tucked away in t he 
very fabric of existence, may owe something to the Isma‘ili emphasis 
on cosmic “exegesis.” For Ghazali, these instances could be recog- 
nized without the guidance of an Imam; recognition depended upon 
purification of tlie soul, insight remained accessible in principle to 
anyone, and the hidden splendours of creation stand all about us if we 
only have eyes to see them. 


In a curious side-note, it’s wortla mentioning that Ghazali’s more 
doctrinally flamboyant younger brother, Ahmad, repaired at the end 
of liis life to an Isma‘ili stronghold in Qazvin, where he died in 1126 
(Ibn Khallikan, 1 :81).This suggests that die doctrinal and evenpolit- 
ical demarcations, at least between Isma‘ilis and Sufis, may have been 
more porous than is usually supposed. 

Ghazali’s attacks on the Isma‘ilis are too diffuse (and often too dis- 
torted) to warrant extensive consideration here. He sometimes 
seems deliberately to misread their texts, though he had access to 
various Fatimid documents (Mitha, 43). Moreover, a disagreeable 
arrogance slants these polemics. He seems to object, in the end, not 
so much to their doctrine of the Imamate as to what he considers 
their“stupidity.”As we’ve seen, he had occasionally used the strategy 
of personal attack in assailing the philosophers (whom he labelled 
“dimwits”) . This is the brash and abrasive Ghazali, the “star pupil” of 
Juwayni’s circle, seeking to dazzle and to dominate by intellectual 
bullying. Even when allowances are made for political circumstances 
and tlie genuine threat posed by Isma‘ilis to Seljuq interests, we 
should keep in mind that it is not only in the early polemics, com- 
missioned by the Caliph, but in his later works, after the turn to 
Sufism, that he stoops to vilifying his opponents: diey are, yet again, 
“dimwits.” He has nothing to say about the refined and intricate 
metaphysics of the Isma‘ilis, though he assails their Neo-Platonic 
tendencies, but engages in casuistry.Thus, in the Mustazhiri, written 
for the Caliph al-Mustazhir, he summarizes the Isma‘ili notion of the 

Their Imam equals the Prophet in iniallibility and knowledge and in 
knowledjje of the realities of the truth in all matters, except that reve- 
lation is not sent down to him, but he simply receives that from the 


In the autobiography, he seeks to poke holes in this doctrine. He 
especially objects to the Isma‘ili emphasis on“authoritative teacliing” 
(ta ‘lim) over “reasoned opinion” (he uses “ra a legal term) . What, 


for example, should a believer do to resolve a ritual quandary when 
the“authoritative teacher,”the Imam, is not readily available? Ifhe has 
a question about the direction of prayer, the qibla, he will have no 
choice but to rely on his own personal judgment: 

For if he were to journey to the Imam’s town to learn about the qibla, 
the time for the prayer would elapse. Hence, the prayer performed 
facing a direction other than the qibla is lawful when based on 

Munqidh, 30/ McCarthy, 84 

In yet anotlaer piece of casuistry, he discusses alms given to a poor 
man.The benefactor must rely on his own personal judgment as to 
whether the beggar is truly poor, for “one may judge tlae man to be 
poor, whereas he is really rich, but not outwardly because he hides 
his weakh” ( Ibid .). Beyond such frivolous cavils, Ghazali sweeps aside 
tlie Isma‘ili doctrine of tlae Imamate by declaring that yes, indeed, we 
do require an“autlioritative teacher” and we have him in tlie Prophet: 

Our infallible teacher is Muhammad . . . If they say, “He is dead!” we say, 
“And your teacher is absent!” And when they say, “Our teacher has 
indeed tausjht his emissaries and scattered them throughout the 
countries, and he expects them to return to consult him if they 
disagree on some point or encounter some dilTiculty,” we say, “Our 
teacher has taught his emissaries and scattered them throughout the 
countries, and he has perfected this teaching, since God Most High has 
said: ‘Today I have perfected for you your religion and have accorded 
you My full favor’ (Qur. S : 5) .” And once the teaching has been 
perfected, the death of the teacher works no harm, just as his absence 
works no harm. 

Munqid, 29/ McCarthy, 85 

So run Ghazali’s arguments against his Isma‘ili adversaries.The con- 
trast, in both tone and content, to his disputations with rival jurists — 
or even with philosophers — is marked; t he tenor of the exchange is 
somewhat jejune. In the autobiography, he concludes his captious 
discussion of the Isma‘ilis by sputtering, “This, then, is the true 
nature of their situation. So try them, and you will hate them! Thus, 


when we had had experience of them, we also washed our hands of 
them!” ( Ibid . , 89). 

Behind such irritated outbursts, Ghazali’s attitude towards the 
Isma‘ilis was clearly more complicated than it at first appears; he was 
perhaps attracted and repelled by their teachings in equal measure. 
The most searching and astute discussion of t his was offered by 
Marshall Hodgson who asked why Ghazali even singled out Isma‘ilis 
as exemplars of “authoritarian” doctrine when so many other candi- 
dates, such as the Hanbalites, were readily available. Hodgson sug- 
gested tlaat Ghazali’s almost obsessive concern witla Isma‘ilism arose 
because “he found something in their position to be persuasive” 
(Hodgson, 2:184). Specifically, bot h Ghazali and the Isma‘ilis 
adopted a “kerygmatic tradition” ( kerjgma , literally “preaching” in 
Greek) that could only be “validated on the basis of a more or less 
incommunicable personal experience” ( Ibid .). In other words, bot h 
Isma‘ilis and Sufis advocated a “proclamation” of trut h , which could 
not be proved by tlieological or philosophical means but depended 
upon the authority of experience, an experience which was ulti- 
mately ineffable. 

Moreover, Isma‘ilis and Sufis both held dear a fundamentally 
esoteric vision of trut li . For die Isma‘ilis, such trut li could only be 
imparted by the Imam. For Ghazali, and other Sufis, spiritual trut h 
lay hidden within the scope of what Ghazali would call the “science of 
illuminations” (‘ ilm al-mukashafat), which he defines, at the begin- 
ning of the Ihja’ , as “knowledge of the hidden ( batin )” and “the 
farthest goal of knowledge” (1:31). Throughout the Ihja’, he takes 
great pains not to encroach on t his realm, instead dwelling expressly 
on “the science of [mystical] interactions” (‘ ilm al-mu‘amalat ), 
which he describes as “knowledge of the states of the heart” (1:32). 
The farthest truths of Sufism are thus as privileged as those 
of Isma‘ilism.The Isma‘ilis incorporated their kerjgma in the institu- 
tion of the Imamate, whereas Sufis entrusted theirs to what Hodgson 
calls “privileged individual but potentially universal awareness” in 
the persons of their saints. If t his is true, and I think it is, t hen 
Isma‘ilism nettled Ghazali not only because it represented a teaching 


at once deviant and authoritarian, but also because it was a rival and 
alternative doctrine, a doctrine too close for comfort in some 

The Incommunicable Taste oJTruth 

Sufism, in contrast to the three other ways, offered something 
utterly intangible; something that could not be attained by words 
alone. In Ghazali’s view, Sufis were not“purveyors of words” (though 
anyone contemplating the voluminous works of early masters, often 
in multiple volumes, might be persuaded otherwise!). Unlike the- 
ologians or philosophers or Isma‘ilis, Sufis held out the promise of a 
knowledge put into living practise. Sufism offered a distinct spiritual 
itinerary, with meticulously delineated way-stations and stopping- 
places. Ghazali, despite his youthful exposure to Sufi teachings, 
approached it through intensive reading and study, but he soon real- 
ized tliat Sufism could not ultimately be tlieoretical. It demanded 
action. To pretend otlierwise would be to repeat the folly of die 
impotent man who craves a description of sexual intercourse. Or, as 
he elaborates further, “How great the difference there is between 
knowing the definitions, causes and conditions of health and satiety, 
and being healthy and sated! And how great a difference there is 
between knowing the definition of drunkenness . . . and actually 
being drunk!” ( Munqidh / McCarthy, 90; modified) .The truth Ghazali 
glimpsed as within his grasp depended not on words or proofs, of 
which he was a master, but on deeds, in which he was the merest 
novice. It was, moreover, a truth not communicable tlirough 

As Sulami, a Sufi of the preceding generation, had remarked, “The 
tongue cannot articulate what is in the heart.” Ghazali would, char- 
acteristically, reduce this to one of his rhyming formulas: Sufism 
was not concerned with “utterances” but with “states” — with ahwal 
rather than aqwal . To compress t he formula even more compactly, he 
had recourse to the concept of “taste” which hencciort h would form 
tlie rubric under which he proceeded. Often, when he comes to 


some ineffable juncture, he will conclude with the unanswerable 
maxim, “He who has tasted knows.” 

The notion of“taste” ( dhawq in Arabic) was already something of a 
commonplace, which Ghazali adapted for his own ends. To taste 
means to experience directly, without mediation. It is the confluence 
of perception and action. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, an Ash‘arite theolo- 
gian of the next century, would define “taste” as “the root of percep- 
tion” (Ormsby 1991, 141). But Sufis had used it well before Ghazali’s 
time (after him, and because of his emphasis, taste would be exten- 
sively invoked and discussed within the Sufi tradition, especially 
among Persian Sufis). Qushayri, for example, spoke of“the taste, the 
direct perception, of notions.” Sulami went go so far as to declare that 
“Taste is the beginning of ecstatic love of God.” Dhawq also crops up 
in a treatise on psychology by Ibn Sina, in a similar context; in 
describing certain Sufis, die philosopher speaks of “the way of dae 
practitioners of experiential wisdom” (literally, “tastable wisdom”) . 
Ghazali himself turns to synesthesia to convey its force; it is, he says, 
“like witnessing widi one’s own eyes and taking in one’s own hands.” 
It is unmistakable and incommunicable, but for Ghazali, taste repre- 
sented the most specific, and delining, characteristic of the highest 
Sufi mystics. 

In his Sufi writings, Ghazali uses “taste” as a coded metaphor for 
experience. The deepest truth is perceptible only darough experi- 
ence; trutli must be tasted to be known. Taste has the paradoxical 
quality of being known and available to everyone, albeit in varying 
degrees, while remaining indescribable (imagine describing the taste 
of vanilla ice cream to someone who has never tasted it) . In a further 
paradox, taste is located in the mouth, where speech occurs; it is a 
mute companion of articulate discourse. It is the most everyday, as 
well as tlie most ineffable, of thc senses. It compresses, within a 
single syllable, the entire soaring structure of Ghazali’s cosmic vision 
in which nothing, however infinitesimal or however vast, can either 
be omitted or overlooked. 



After his second crisis, in 1095, Ghazali teetered on the brink of 
commitment for six months. He had discovered the path to truth but 
could not bring himself to take it. He had knowledge in abundance; 
to act on it was the final obstacle. He had read and studied the trea- 
tises of earlier Sufi masters such as AbuTalib al-Makki, whose great 
compendium Qut al-qulub (“The Food of Hearts”) he would later ran- 
sack for both examples and arguments, but he could not turn learn- 
ing into practise. 

This second crisis, which left him speechless and paralyzed, was 
kindled not by doubt, but by certainty. For Ghazali, with his glib 
and voluble brilliance, his versatility, his unremitting curiosity, study 
of dre truth came more easily tlian application. “Knowledge was 
easier for me,” he wrote, “than practise ”The more he immersed 
himself in Sufism, poring over classic treatises by authorities such as 
Qushayri, his older contemporary, or by earlier masters such as 
Muhasibi, the greater loomed liis awareness of his own imperfec- 
tions. The rnore he became convinced of t he truth of Sufism, the 
more he vacillated: 

One day I would lirmly resolve to leave Baghdad and disentangle 
myself from those circumstances, and the next day I would annul 
my resolution. I put one foot forward and the other back. At morning 
I would sincerely desire to seek the things of the world to come. 

By evening the hosts of passion would assail my resolve and turn it 

Worldly desires tugged at me with their chains to keep me as I was 
while the crier of the faith kept calling, “ Away ! To the road ! . . . lf 
you don’t prepare now for the life to come, when will you? If you 
don’t sever your attachments now, when will you sever them? And 
then the call would sound again. I would lirmly decide to escape. 

But Satan returned to the attack and said, “This is a passing state. 

Beware of giving in to it! It will soon vanish. Once you’ve surrendered 
and relinquished your present renown and your splendid position, 


free from vexation, and have abandoned your secure situation, 
untroubled by the contention of your enemies, your soul may 
cast longing eyes again at all that. But then it won’t be so easy to 

Munqidh, 36/McCarthy, 91—92; modiiied 

His vacillation is understandable; he had much to give up. Nor was 
his hesitation particularly unusual. To cite but one example, the 
great French poet and playwright Paul Claudel experienced an 
overwhelming sensation, in Notre-Dame Cathedral, on Christmas 
Eve 1890, of what he called “the eternal childhood of God.” He 
regained his Catholic faitli on tlie spot and yet it took a full five 
years to act on his new-found faith, simply because he was painfully 
conscious of “human regard.” Ghazali had a similar hurdle to leap: 
his ambition, and the place in the world which it had won for him. 
As he acknowledged years later, after his return to teaching in 

I know well that, even though I have returned to teaching, I have not 
really returned. For returning is coming back to what was. Formerly I 
used to impart the knowledge by which glory is gained for glory’s sake, 
and to invite men to it by my words and deeds, and that was my aim 
and my intention. But now I invite men to the knowledge by which 
glory is renounced and its lowly rank recognized. 

Munqidh, 49— 50/McCarthy, 107 

Ghazali finally did act. When he had sunk into a state of utter help- 
lessness, he turned to God, who “made it easy” for him “to turn away 
from fame and fortune, family, children and associates” ( Munqidh / 
McCarthy, 92). In November 1095, he slipped quietly out of 
Baghdad, on the pretext tliat he was making the pilgrimage; he would 
roam for tlic next eleven years. In Sufi legend, such reversals are 
often described as sudden and dramatic. For example, the conver- 
sion of Ghazali’s earlier compatriot, Ibraliim ibn Adham, prince of 
Balkli, occurred when he was out hunting, a favorite pastime. He 
heard a voice thundering at him, “Is it for this that you were created?” 


Thouijh Ibraliim ignored thc summons, it came again, even more 
loudly.The third time the voice arose from t hc pommel of liis saddle 
and he instantly dismounted, put on t hc woollen garments of t hc 
Sufi, and embarked on an ascetic life (Ormsby 1991, 147). By 
contrast, Ghazali’s acceptance of the pa t h was slow, methodical 
and cautious. He tells us frankly that he made “clever use of subtle 
stratagems about leaving Baghdad, while firmly resolved never to 
return to it.” 


There are indications that his departure from Baghdad wasn’t an 
undue wrench. In the Ihja ’ , Ghazali takes a certain glee in including 
traditions and sayings tlrat disparage the city. Thus, in his “Book of 
Love,” tlie tliirty-sixth treatise of tlie work, he quotes Ibn al- 
Mubarak, a fellow Klrorasanian, who supposedly exclaimed, “I’ve 
roamed in both East and West but never have I found a city wickeder 
tlian Baghdad!” When asked his opinion of Baghdad, after he had 
returned home, Ibn al-Mubarak stated, “There I saw only raging 
police, anxious businessmen, and baffled reciters of the Qur’an.” 
Ghazali furtlier informs us that the Sufi Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad called 
Baghdad “a nest of darkness,” and that another early Sufi, Bishr ibn 
al-Harith, went so far as to proclaim: “He who worships God in 
Baghdad is like someone who worships Him in the shit-house!” ( Ihya ’, 
4:373—74). In repeating these unsavory opinions, Ghazali states, 
rather disingenuously, that he means no slander; but the reader, even 
at this distance, will detect the rasp of old axes being ground. 

He planned his departure well. He distributed his wealth, keeping 
only enough for his maintenance; he arranged for tlre support of his 
family, drawing on a special pious endowment in Iraq, intended for 
scholars and their dependents. This shows tlie commonsensical side 
of the man, even as he stands at the most momentous of junctures; it 
also suggests, perhaps unfairly, that his heart was as hard as his head. 
What would happen to his wife (or wives) and children, left to the 


support of public funds, however piously established?To be sure, he 
does remark, later in the autobiography, that “the appeals of my chil- 
dren drew me back to my native land” and further, that “important 
family matters,” along with the need to make a living, “troubled the 
serenity of my solitude” (Munqidh /McCarthy, 94). Still, even a mil- 
lennium later, it smacks of selfishness.There is a ruthlessness at the 
core of conversion that isn’t always noted, and Ghazali displays it.To 
be sure, the practise of widadrawing from one’s family was of long 
standing, especially among ascetics. In the lhya ’ , Ghazali would 
exhort his readers by saying, “Your wives and children are enemies to 
you, so guard against them!” (4:60; Ormsby 1984, 256).This casts a 
somewhat chilling light on his frequent mentions of the joys and 
responsibilities of fatherhood. 


What finally prompted his resolve? In one account, his brother 
Ahmad supplied tlie final shove. Ahmad visited him on his sickbed 
and sang: 

You’ve bestowed guidance on others but are not well guided yourseli. 
You’ve heard the homily but you haven’t heeded it. 

O whetstone, how long will you sharpen the iron and not cut? 

Zabidi, 1 :8 

As Ghazali informs us, speculation about his motives was rampant. 
Some were convinced that he left the capital for fear of the autliori- 
ties; otliers, who knew this to be untrue, fell back on more occult 
explanations, suggesting that the“evil eye” — all too often glowering 
at the learned — had prompted his flight. Otliers suggested that fear 
of Isma‘ili assassins had driven him into exile. 

Ghazali headed first for Damascus. There, he spent two years in 
seclusion, solitude, and meditation. He frequented die Umayyad 
Mosque, spending so much of his time sequestered in one of its 
minarets that it is known to this day as “Ghazali’s Minaret.” In 


Damascus, he began work on his monumental compendium, t hc 
lhya’ ‘ulum al-din, “The Revival of the Religious Sciences,” in forty 
volumes, which he completed, incredibly enough, in little more than 
two years. The Ihya’ stands as a testimony to Ghazali’s own inner 
transformation. More importantly, it would transform not only 
Sufism, but Islam itself. 



“The Revival of the Religious Sciences”is Ghazali’s masterwork and 
a book like no other. Though he draws copiously from earlier 
sources, often to the point of outright appropriation, he orders his 
vast material so well, and infuses it with such intensity, that it all 
shines anew. It ranges from the most minute and mundane of details 
— the protocols of ritual ablution, how to hold a fork, die use of tlae 
tootlipick — to the most lofty subjects — the love of God, and tlie bliss- 
ful acceptance of deatli. It is simultaneously a compendium of law, 
sacred tradition, theology and philosophy, and Sufi lore and theory, 
as well as a vivid, if inadvertent, depiction of a world. Thanks to 
Ghazali’s love of punchy examples and homely, often humorous 
anecdotes, his eleventh-century milieu springs to life. However 
exalted Ghazali’s vision may be at moments, he keeps his sharp gaze 
trained on the world around him and little seems to escape it. As he 
put it in the Ihya’, in the course of a discussion on love, “Many are the 
acts of God, but let us search out the least, tlie lowest, and the tiniest 
of them and contemplate tlieir wonders” (Ihya’ , 4:335—6/ Ormsby 
2008). He means not only the minuscule marvels of the natural 
world — bees, gnats, and ants are among his favorites — but the small 
humdrum details of daily life: games such as chess or polo, food, 
sexual behaviour, and the haggling of tlie marketplace. 

Social historians have tended to ignore this rich source; the loss is 
theirs. For example, in attempting to convey what is meant by tlae 



phrase “tlie friends of God,” Ghazali borrows a (dubious) tradition 
from dre earlier Sufi writer Abu Nu‘aym al-Isfahani, in which God 
describes His friends as “those who are bent on love of Me the way a 
boy hankers after somedring.” Ghazali expands on dris and remarks: 

When a boy has set his heart on something, he won’t let go of it. If it’s 
taken from him, he does nothing but weep and scream until it’s given 
back. When he goes to sleep, he takes it with him inside his clothes and 
when he wakes, he returns to it and clutches it tight. When he has to 
part with it he cries; when he finds it again he laughs. He hates anyone 
who fights with him over it; he loves whoever gives it to him. 

Ihja ’/ Ormsby 2008 

In such a passage, it isn’t dre formidable“Proof of Islam” who is speak- 
ing but a fadrer. And apparently, not an indifferent one but a fadrer 
who has observed his children; who has understood, and sympathized 
widr, their srnall passions and sorrows. Such a passage sits oddly with 
his recent abandonment of his family. Was it just a good example, 
ready to hand, or prompted by a moment of affectionate recollection? 
Whatever die truth, the observation persuades; it rings true because 
we detect an underlying note of tenderness.We grasp, at a stroke, how 
God’s friends must love Him. Ghazali’s shrewd eye for the humble 
realities of real life gives die entire work its immediacy. 

Most accounts of the Ihja’ make it sound dry, as though it were 
little more than an omnium gatherum of Sufi theory and practise. Or 
it is described as a “syndiesis;” closer to the truth but still misleading. 
Such descriptions overlook the two most salient facts about die 
work. First, it is driven by intense ambition, and second, its original- 
ity and significance reside as much in its magisterial architecture as in 
its content. 

Ambition Transjormed 

When Ghazali forsook Baghdad, he renounced the prestige to which 
his intellectual and professional ambition had led him, but his renun- 
ciation wasn’t entirely what it seemed. He had relinquished his 


position, hi s place at court, the pleasures of family life, as well as his 
considerable celebrity, yet ambition had not left him; it had merely 
turned into something grander. Henceforth, as he stated obliquely in 
the autobiography, he would see himself as the “renewer of religion” 
for all Islam, as it approached the half-millennium of its establish- 
ment in the Muslim year 500 ( 1 1 06 ce) . He assigns this claim to cer- 
tain“saintly men” who learned it through dreams, but this is probably 
nothing more than a decorous subterfuge.There is something a little 
quixotic in Ghazali’s presumption: no previous “renewer ofreligion” 
had designated himself. All the others had been post liumously 
acclaimed — and tliey included some of the most illustrious names in 
the Sunni tradition — in the first century, ‘Umar ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the 
third “rightly guided Caliph ,” in the second century Shafi‘i, in the 
third none other than Ash‘ari, and in the fourth, the theologian 
Isfara’ini (though Baqillani, another AslTarite theologian, was also a 
candidate) . Ghazali would later be accorded this coveted title — along 
with the honorific by which he is most widely known: “The Proof of 
Islam” ( Hujjat al-Islam ) — but it seems somewhat grandiose, if not 
overweening, not only to aspire to it, but to say so. 


The impulse to renew propels The Revival from beginning to end. It 
is a tendentious masterpiece; seductive, hectoring, cajoling, caustic, 
rhapsodic, and densely, even obsessively, argued. But neither elo- 
quence, subtlety of reasoning, nor profundity of insight accounts for 
the book’s greatness. Without the remarkable organizational skill 
needed to marshal such varied material into a cogent whole, the 
work might easily have failed its purpose.The Ihya’ displays an archi- 
tecture both rigorous and transparent. It is composed in four “quar- 
ters,” each of which contains ten books. Within each book, topics are 
considered according to a quadripartite scheme. Whether he is dis- 
cussing ritual ablutions, the proper treatment of a guest, the role of 
the senses in tlie psychology of temptation, vices to be avoided or 


virtues to be cultivated, Ghazali begins with proof-texts: first, verses 
from tlie Qur’an; second, pertinent sayings from SacredTradition; 
tliird, sayings of the Sufi masters, accompanied by edifying anec- 
dotes. Only after he has described these does he launch into the 
fourth part, die discussion proper. In this way, he sets up a triple layer 
of aut hority before embarking on argument and exhortation. 

The four-part structure of each book, together with tlie overall 
arrangement, suggests tliat the number four and its multiples had 
particular significance for Ghazali. Like most medieval thinkers, he 
had a strong, and sometimes superstitious, regard for the occult 
power of numerals. He concludes The Delivetei Jrom Error with an 
enigmatic “magic square” in which numbers and letters are arranged 
in an ingenious grid. He comments that if such a square is written on 
two scraps of cloth and never exposed to water, it can be given to a 
woman in labor; the woman must gaze at the cloths and then place 
diem under her feet to hasten childbirth. Below t he colophon of die 
oldest manuscript of the same work, copied in 1 1 1 5 , four years after 
his deadi, a four-square grid appears, each square of which contains 
a cryptic letter (McCarthy, frontispiece).This probably served as an 
amulet. Ghazali entitled a later treatise The Book oJTorty; in it, he elab- 
orates on sacred traditions of particular significance. It’s perhaps not 
coincidental that he began writing the lhya’ in 1096 or 1097, when 
he was around forty years of age (Hourani, 296). Such numerologi- 
cal matters, verging on die occult, preoccupied die soberest ratio- 
nalists ; in Ghazali ’s case , they are indicative of the fact that for him die 
supernatural constitutes a kind of spectrum, extending from die 
crudest manifestations to die most refined; a spectrum in which even 
quasi-magical manifestations attest to another realm. 

Ghazali opens his work with a disquisition on knowledge. In this, 
he follows the structure of earlier compilations of SacredTradition, 
which begin widi accounts of the true meaning of knowledge and 
dien proceed to specific ritual, ethical, and legal subjects. No doubt 
he adopted this order so that his work would look familiar to its read- 
ers, despite the novelty of his treatment. In a deeper sense, the sub- 
ject of knowledge is die key to die entire work. At every turn, he 


invokes its centrality; it is the basis upon which a genuine spiritual 
quest must be founded. By prefacing his vast discourse with a treat- 
ment of t he most fundamental of topics, he also introduces what is a 
determining, if not always openly stated, object of the entire work: 
The Revival embodies knowledge to be acted upon. 

The Ihya’ as “Script” 

Unlike other texts, even within his own Sufi tradition, The Revival 
demands to be read in a particular, and perhaps unaccustomed, man- 
ner.To call it a “blueprint” for action would be inadequate; rather, it is 
more of a script, the exact import of which can only be realized in 
performance. As he repeatedly stresses, all four “quarters” of The 
Revival deal exclusively with “states [or actions] of the heart,” as 
opposed to “illuminations” (the so-called mu ‘amalat, as opposed to 
the mukashajat). When, in the course of a discussion, Ghazali strays 
too close to hidden or privileged insights about die underlying sig- 
nificance of certain practises, he tends to draw back.These, he will 
say, refer to matters of illumination which it is impermissible to 
divulge in such a work.This caution would not always spare him from 
attack; he was occasionally criticized for disclosing, or touching too 
openly upon, such rarefied matters. Certain topics, it was claimed, 
should not be imparted to the uninitiated, simply because unculti- 
vated souls wouldn’t be able to absorb them in the proper spirit. 
Ghazali agreed with tliis restriction; however, no clear consensus 
existed as to quite where the boundaries of the discussable could be 

The notion of the text as a “script” — that is, as a text which can be 
understood only by being put into action — has other corollaries. 
Most important perhaps is the provisional, or even hypothetical, 
nature of certain of Ghazali’s treatments, especially in the fourth 
Quarter, where he moves into tlie most exalted and demanding 
Sufi terrain. By “provisional” I mean that certain injunctions and 
prescriptions offered throughout the text have an“as if”quality: the 
novice must act “as if” such-and-such were true. The path to 


understanding is not only gradual but ramified.To move from one 
level to another may require a certain kind of play-acting, a perfor- 
mance; through performance, dre role can become reality.This does 
not mean that dre point in question is untrue; radrer, it means that, 
first, dre aspirant must practise a certain “suspension of disbelief” 
and, second, that dre truth at issue is not necessarily the complete or 
dre final truth; it is a truth unveiling itself, which will be grasped cor- 
rectly only later, when deeper and more intricate aspects of dre truth 
are clarified, and even dren, only through action. In dris respect, dre 
text has the practical feel of a manual, along dre lines of dre treatise 
on dre “beautiful names” of God, discussed earlier.The performative 
aspect of dre Ihya ’ has not been remarked upon before but is essen- 
tial. The work is not a straightforward “encyclopedia” of Sufi lore 
and practise, nor is it a simple “synthesis.” However dre prose may 
soar, its insights were rneant to be tested day by day, hour by hour, in 
dre world of men and women. It contains “knowledge” which a 
reader is expected to transform into “action,” and its words can be 
understood properly only if“tasted.” It is dre fullest possible elabora- 
tion of dre Ghazalian dictum widr which we began: “knowledge and 

Contents of the Ihya’ 

The first Quarter deals with worship and ritual obligations in their 
innermost significance ' 4 - what Ghazali terms their “secrets” — and 
contains dre following books: 1 

1 The nature of knowledge* 

2 Creedal principles (this is the treatise “Foundations and 

1 Marked with an asterisk are those books which have been translated into English. 
All forty books are currently being translated and published by the Islamic Texts 
Society of Cambridge, England; as of this writing, ten books have appeared. There 
are also partial translations into German, French, Italian, Dutch, and Persian. 


3 Ritual purity* 

4 Prayer 

5 Almsgiving* 

6 Fasting* 

7 Pilgrimage 

8 Recitation of the Qur’an 

9 Invocations and supplications* 

1 0 Prayers at set times 

The second Quarter deals with manners, comprising not only eti- 
quette but the conduct of personal relationships; it is thus a Sufi sys- 
tem of practical etlaics. Its ten books are: 

1 1 Table manners; eating and drinking* 

1 2 Marriage 

1 3 Gain and earning a livelihood 

14 Lawful and unlawful things* 

1 5 Association with friends and companions 

1 6 Solitude 

1 7 Travel 

1 8 Listening (to music and poetry); ecstasy* 

1 9 “Commanding the good and forbidding dae wrong” 

20 The life and ethical comportment of the Prophet 

The third Quarter is concerned with psychology, especially the 
nature of tlie human self (or heart), and moves from t here quite nat- 
urally into the various vices and sins, those acts and tendencies which 
are destructive and form obstacles to salvation: 

2 1 Wonders of the heart* 

22 Disciplining the self* 

23 Breaking t he two desires (gluttony and lust)* 

24 Sins of die tongue 


25 Against anger, malice, and envy 

26 Contempt for the world 

27 Against avarice and love of possessions 

28 Against status and hypocrisy 

29 Against haughtiness and pride 

30 Against delusion 

The final, and justly renowned, fourth Quarter of The Revival deals 
with salvation and the virtues and“states” which lead to it.These are: 

3 1 Repentance 

32 Patience and thankfulness* 

33 Fearandhope* 

34 Poverty and renunciation* 

35 Belief in God’s oneness and trust in Plim* 

36 Love of God* 

37 Intention, sincerity, and truthfulness* 

38 Self-watchfulness; examination of conscience 

39 Meditation 

40 Remembrance of deatli* 

As tliis list suggests, there is a progression in the chapters from 
die humblest duties of a believer to die highest pinnacles of insight. 
Each topic is a step in a slow ascent, each new theme depends upon 
die dieme that precedes it. At the same time, however, nothing is 
superseded or supplanted. Realization of the innermost meaning of, 
say, ritual ablution is as important for tlie most accomplished initiate 
as it is for the merest novice.The aspiring mystic proceeds by stages, 
without ever neglecting or forgetting the step on which he first set 
his foot.The structure of the lhya’ is thus simultaneously hierarchical 
and circular. 

One other characteristic of die work must be mentioned. Despite 
its imposing structure, despite the sense of mission which animates 


it, The Revival is a very personal book. Ghazali speaks regularly in the 
first person, in his own voice, and autobiographical details are sprin- 
kled throughout. Sometimes these are quite explicit; otliers may be 
inferred.The note is struck from t he outset, when, in t he opening 
pages, he declares that “God loosed the knot of silence from my 
tongue and encircled me ... with the necklace of rational speech.” 
( Ihja 1 :9). This is an obvious allusion to his breakdown, when he 
was reduced to speechlessness. In The Revival and indeed, in all the 
later work, that knot is not only loosed but transformed into the 
most eloquent of necklaces. 

Ghazali’s Sufism 

It’s not possible to give a just sense of The Revival of the Religious 
Sciences in a few pages. It’s not only a mighty book but often a mad- 
dening one. Ghazali can dwell on the minutiae of daily life to an 
almost obsessive degree at one moment, only to rise to ecstatic elo- 
quence at another. For example, in discussing table manners he 
remarks that“one should do nothing that others hold to be unclean,” 
and continues: 

Thus a person should not shake his hand in the dish [to remove any 
food clinjring to it] nor move his head towards the dish when placing 
the morsel in his mouth. If he removes something from his mouth he 
should avert his face from the food and take it out with his left hand. 

He must not immerse a greasy morsel in the vinegar, nor the vinegar in 
the greasy morsel, for others may not like this. He should not immerse 
in the broth or the vinegar what is left of any morsel he has cut with his 
teeth; nor should he talk about things that bring to mind things held to 
be unclean. 

Ihja’, 3: 10/ Johnson-Davies, 16—17 

In the same eleventh book, he offers advice of a more peculiar sort, as 
when he informs us t hat “four tliings increase one’s sexual prowess: 
eating small birds, truffles, pistacliio nuts, and watercress” or, more 
suggestively, tlaat “four things strengthen die sight: sitting in the 
direction of the cjihla [tliat: is, towards Mecca, the direction of prayer] , 


wearing kohl when sleeping, looking at greenery, and the cleansing of 
garments” (Ibid., 51). I cite these prescriptions not for tlieir quaint- 
ness but because tliey illustrate his practical bent; this is t hc “avuncu- 
lar” Ghazali. (Even here, however, we note the recurrence of the 
number four, as well as tlie stress laid upon certain topics : human sex- 
uality, for example, or the beauty of growing things, for which he had 
a particular fondness.) At die odier extreme he can open liis dis- 
course on divine love with the following magnificent oration: 

Praised be GodWho exalted the hearts of His saints above all concern 
for the vanities and the tjlamour of this world, Who puriiied their 
innermost beings from resjard for anything but His presence, Who 
singled out their hearts for devotion on the prayer rug of His grandeur 
and disclosed to them His names and His attributes so that they shone 
with the very fire ol knowing Him, Who then revealed to them the 
splendours of His face until they burned in the fire of His love; andWho 
then concealed from them the essence of His majesty so that they 
wandered in the deserts of His glory and His might.Then, whenever 
they trembled at a glimpse of His essential majesty, He darkened it with 
such astonishment as dusts the surlace of both reason and perception. 

Ihjra’, 4:311 

It would be misleading to give tlie impression t h a t t he work veers only 
between extremes of t hc picayune and the grandiloquent. Ghazali has 
a fondness, perhaps a weakness, for immense contrasts which he 
delights in reconciling; paradox of hot li image and content is one of his 
favorite devices. But drere is another voice heard throughout tliese 
forty books, a voice tliat is measured and commonsensical, and this 
predominates. Between morsels dipped in vinegar and the seraphic 
hosts gazing on t he Most High, a distinctly human and sensible accent 
sounds.The Ihja’ is a manual for salvation but along thc way it offers 
much advice for t he good conduct of life in the world. 

Beyond such telling but superficial aspects lie essential themes 
which bind this vast work together. In exploring some of them, cer- 
tain of the contours of Ghazali’s distinctive Sufism — at once system- 
atic and visionary — will emerge. 


The Decipherment of the World 

Seen with“the eyes of the heart,”the world discloses its double visage 
to the Sufi aspirant. In itself, tlie world is little more than a fiction, a 
metaphor of true reality; it is a “figure of speech” ( majaz ), not an 
“essential reality” ( haqiqah ). As Ghazali put it in one of his letters, 
written in Persian, “existence and non-existence do not arise from 
themselves but rather, from the divine nature.” Existence falls into 
two distinct realms: God, and everything-that-is-not-God. God is 
the only existing object, everything else exists only metaphorically. 
This view represents the spinning out of tlie Avicennian conception 
of contingency in mystical terms. In themselves, all beings and tliings 
are only possible; what actuality tliey possess comes from outside. 
And yet (to complicate matters further) , all things bear within them 
that necessity imparted to them by the efficacious will of t he 
Omnipotent. Reality — or what we like to call“reality”— is inherently 
paradoxical: it is at once intrinsically possible and extrinsically nec- 
essary. For this reason, phenomena display a double aspect to the 
enlightened. Man is simultaneously “a dungheap covered with skin” 
and“the most amazing” of creations, depending on whether we con- 
sider man in himself or man as the creature of God. 

The figurative nature of created tliings doesn’t mean that theyre 
unreal. In one sense, they are illusory : everything we lust after in the 
world, whether it be pleasure, possession, or high prestige, forms a 
bramble of delusion; it falls under t h e heading of “lower world” 
( dunja in Arabic) — what we might refer to in English as “tlie world, 
the flesh, and the devil.” Seen truly, however, creation, which issues 
from the hand of God, is pristine and transparent with marvel. Only 
our eyes are clouded against its transparency. 

Ejesight vs Insight 

When we look with purified eyes into the depths of creation, we dis- 
cover that it is dense with wisdom. A benign rationale lies coiled in all 
phenomena, waiting to be discovered. These rationales are what 


Ghazali terms “instances of wisdom,” (using the plural ( hikam ) of tlre 
Arabic word for “wisdom” and “philosophy”) . Each thing in the order 
of creation carries within it some such discernible wisdom, which is 
ours to discover.These are not“veiled”truths; tliey standbefore us in 
their nakedness, if we can only learn to see t licni . Moreover, every 
instance leads to otlier such instances, with which it is inextricably 
linked. We have trouble discerning them not only because our eyes 
are impure, but also because the world and our minds connive to 
keep them hidden; there is a cognitive complicity in tlie structure 
both of our minds and of the world, which prevents us from seeing. 
The notion had already been voiced by AbuTalib al-Makki, one of 
Ghazali’s main sources, when he wrote: 

God lets the world-order take its course in conformity with the 
intellect’s own order and the meanings of the customary and usual 
process of events, through well-known means and accepted 
instrumentalities, in accord with which the natural bent of the intellect 
and its innate propensity . . . Hence, the excellence of the world-order 
and the beauty of the divine decree are by their very nature hidden. 

Ormsby 1984,58 

This is a subtle point. In one sense, we are designed not to discern, 
just as the world has been designed not to be discernible, for 
“God conceals tlie ends and veils mysteries,” as Makki remarks. 
Building on this, Ghazali elsewhere quotes Qur. 8:24, “God comes 
between a man and his heart,” and comments,“God blocks man from 
direct knowledge, attentive observation and awareness of tlre mind’s 
attributes, and how it is turned this way and that between t he 
fingers of t he Merciful” (Ihya ’ , 3:3). This is why acceptance of tlae 
Sufi path and its considerable rigors is so imperative: only tlirough 
radical purification of tlie senses and the intellect can we hope to see, 
can we hope to taste, what stands in all its obviousness right before 
our eyes. 

I don’t wish to suggest that Ghazali believed truth to exist only on 
t he surface of things; tliough he rejected the privileged wisdom of 
Isma ‘ilis , he was not a proponent of tlie purely non-esoteric, after dre 


manner of the Zahiris. Ratlier, the more perception was refined, the 
more truths it would discover. Clarity has its own depths; the light is 
as infinitesimally stratified as the darkness — indeed, it is more so. In 
principle, insight could penetrate indefinitely into the secrets of 
things without touching bottom. An insight, that is, which relies nei- 
ther on an infallible Imam, nor on mere logical thought, but on lived 
experience viewed tlirough the“eyes of the heart.” 

Ghazali often contrasts “eyesight” witli “insight.” The refinement 
of insight allows one to penetrate more deeply into botli sacred teach- 
ing and the world itself. In Book 35, Ghazali chooses a characteristi- 
cally homely analogy to illustrate diis point. To understand the 
principle of God’s unity, we should think of it as a nut. A nut has four 
layers: an outer shell, an inner husk, a kernel, and t he oil within the 
kernel.Those who are content with the shell profess God’s oneness 
with their tongues, but not witli their hearts. Those who reach the 
inner husk are conventional believers. Those who have approached 
the kernel have been accorded illumination; truth has been 
“unveiled,” at least in part, for them. But the deepest level is reached 
by tliose who pierce to t he innermost oil of the nut; t hese rare indi- 
viduals, “annihilated in their faith,” glimpse the divine oneness behind 
all phenomena; tliey “see only unity when diey regard existence” 
(lhya ’ , 4:262 /Burrell, 10; Landolt, 71). 

Creation as Divine Text 

Creation too is a kind of text; after all, the word for Qur’anic verse is 
the same in Arabic as the word for “natural sign,” and Ghazali, like 
many other commentators, loves to play on this. The farther our 
insight reaches, the more wisdom we discover woven into the very 
fabric of things.The human body provides innumerable instances of 
this wisdom. Consider your own hand: 

God placed the fingers on one side and the thumb on the other side, so 
that the thumb could curve around them all. Now if all beings from the 
first to the last collaborated to devise by subtle thought another way of 
placing the fingers except as they have been placed . . . they could not 


do this. For by this arransjement the hand is best suited for ^raspinjr and 
letting go. 

Ihja’, 4: 1 17 

So, too, with the eye or the ear or thc nose, so, too, with all the limbs 
and organs down to the veins, t he nerves, the bones and the liga- 
ments: all have been exquisitely positioned in the best possible 
arrangement, and this demonstrates the presence of a hidden wis- 
dom in creation. This line of reasoning, which Ghazali continually 
exploits, came to him (as Joseph Schacht pointed out long ago) from 
Mu‘tazilite doctrine; t hc Mu‘tazilites had derived it from the Greek 
physician and philosopher Galen (“Jalinus”to theArabs). Ghazali dis- 
infects it of Mu‘tazilism by removing the element of obligation which 
t hey had imposed upon God. For him, God’s wisdom, like His 
choice, is utterly free and unconstrained. God wasn’t obliged to 
provide us with opposable thumbs but in His wisdom and generosity 
He did. 

So marvellous are human beings that Ghazali, drawing on an old 
commonplace, calls t hem each “a little world.”This draws on t he 
ancient notion of the microcosm; the philosopher Kindi, along with 
many otlier writers, had used it, remarking t hat “man is a little world 
since every force which exists in t hc All is to be found in him” (Rasa ’il, 
1 : 260) . But Ghazali usesit to inspire amazement inhis readers.“Ifwe 
wished to mention the marvels in a bedbug, an ant, a bee or a spider 
. . . in t he way they build their houses, gather their food, consort with 
their mates, and store provisions, . . . we would not be able to do so,” 
he writes (Ihja ’ , 4:375). His guiding principle, enunciated in a later 
summary of The Revival, is diat “the lowest is explicatory of the high- 
est” (Jawahir, 41).The gnat is no less awesome than thc elephant. 
Small creatures mirror larger ones: the gnat has a “trunk” as inge- 
nious as the elephant’s, t hough less conspicuous. If such wonders 
exist in these tiny beings, how much more so in humans? If we exam- 
ine the structure of t he human body witli attentive eyes, we will see 
t hc entire cosmos reflected in its make-up. Not only are the things of 
t he world placed in the best places for them, but t hcy mirror one 


another, and tliis is especially true ofhumans.The creation is a“divine 
copy” and we the mirrors of that facsimile.The world, in t liis sense, is 
perfect and so too are human beings, its apex. The world forms a 
complex web of correspondences, in which everything from the far- 
thest star to dae lowliest insect is bound togetlier, and all phenomena 
intersect in the human creature. 

The Enemy Self 

From an early period, Sufi masters realized that tlie chief obstacle on 
the patli was t hc human self; we house an intimate enemy. Ghazali 
cites the tradition which runs, “The most hostile of your enemies is 
that self of yours between your two sides.”The fact that the self is 
not intrinsically evil complicated this awareness. True, the Qur’an 
identifies a “self that incites to evil” (12:53) but that: self was also 
recognized as a vital force.This entity within us, pesky yet indispens- 
able, is the najs, a word sometimes translated as dae “carnal soul,” 
and deriving from the same Arabic root as the word for “breath.” It 
is an inner force, which must be tamed, and if possible annihilated, 
for union with God to occur; or rat her, since a return to the world 
after “annihilation” constitutes a higher stage of spirituality, that self 
must be transformed. It must be emptied of everything t hat: is not 

For Ghazali, as for earlier Sufis, dae self is the seat of lust and greed 
and rage. It craves only satisfaction of its appetites, yet remains insa- 
tiable, but it also gives us courage, energy, and audacity. For Ghazali, 
the self may be understood in a second and deeper sense. It is “a sub- 
tle organ” and “man in the true sense,” it is “his very self and nature” 
( lhya ’, 3:5). FIe distinguishes several selves in t he self. There is t hc 
“carnal self ” but also the “serene soul,” which God will summon to 
FIimself at death with the words, “O thou serene soul, return to thy 
Lord” (Qur. 89:27). And there is t hc “reproving soul” (or self), 
derived from Qur. 75:2, which fights our lower appetites . 

Here, as elsewhere, Ghazali’s fundamental healthiness of outlook 
prevails. Sex, for example, is not bad in itself; on die contrary, it 


prefigures the pleasures of paradise. As he says, offering an explicit 

Know that man has been made subject to sexual desire for two benefi- 
cial reasons.The first of these is that by knowinjr its delight he is able to 
draw an analogy which suggests to him what the delight of the Afterlife 
must be like . . .The second reason is that it allows the human race to 
continue and the world to abide. 

Ihya’ , B: 107/ Winter 1995, 165 

But if sex forms the object of tlie self ’s cravings, it becomes a snare, 
especially when it causes exclusive attachment to one particular 
person. Ghazali condemns passionate attachments; it is preferable 
to enjoy multiple relations ratlier tlian to be besotted with one 
beloved; it is shameful for people to believe that “their lust can only 
be satisfied by one person” (IbiJ . , 169). For later Sufis, and for 
Ghazali himself, such exclusive and overmastering erotic passion, 
when directed towards God, represents the liighest stage of spiritual 
development. At tliat stage, the lover realizes that only one true 
Beloved exists. 

The Human Heart 

To reach this realization, the sly self must be outwitted and brought 
to heel; t his is the proper function of dae intellect. Only then can 
ot her, more refined human faculties come into their own.These are 
die “spirit” ( ruh ), dae intellect, and above all, the “heart” (qalb). The 
word I translate as“heart”has a wider range of meaning inArabic than 
in English; it comprises all that we mean by “mind”as well. It is a cog- 
nitive faculty of great subtlety and depth, far surpassing mere “intel- 
lect.” (PascaTs famous aphorism, “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne 
connait pas" (The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know), 
offers a parallel.) Here is how, in the third Quarter of the Ihya ’ , 
Ghazali characterizes the heart: 

The piece of flesh, shaped like a pine-cone, lodged on the left side of 
the breast . . . We don’t intend to explain its form and lunction; that’s 


the task of doctors and has nothing to do with religious aims. This heart 
exists in the beasts, it exists in a corpse. But in this book, when we use 
the word “heart” we don’t mean that — a lump of ilesh without any 
great value . . . [ We mean] “heart” in its second sense as a subtle spiritual 
and divine organ.This subtle faculty constitutes the true and essential 
nature of man; it is that part of man which perceives, which knows, 
which has insight. 

lhya’ , 3:4 

The heart, the primal seat of intellect, is “that in man which under- 
stands and knows t he true nature of things.” He cites the earlier mys- 
tic Sahl al-Tustari approvingly, “The heart is the throne and the breast 
is its pedestal.” 

Man also possesses a spirit, a“fine body . . . which diffuses by means 
of the arteries to other parts of the body.” But here Ghazali draws one 
of his annoying veils: discussion of the spirit is not permitted. All he 
will say is that it is a“delicate organ of perception and knowledge.” He 
cites, as his reason for discretion, Qur. 17:85, in which tlie Prophet 
states:“The Spirit is part of my Lord’s domain.” Still, its qualities may 
be suggested. In one of tliose beautiful analogies which are part of tlie 
glory of tlie Ihya’ , Ghazali compares die spirit to lamplight falling 
across a wall and says,“The flowing of the breath of life and its motion 
in t he body is like the motion of a lamp in the corners of a house when 
someone moves it about” (Ihya ’ , 3:4).This is a homely image, under- 
standable by anyone, yet which conveys the suggestion of a supreme 

If we could decode all the elements that go into our making we 
would be dumbfounded. But we are signs indecipherable to our- 
selves.To help us decipher ourselves, Ghazali offers not only argu- 
ments but parables. Thus, tlie heart is like a king supplied with 
servants and assistants; the senses play the role of “the spies” of that 
king. The heart administers its “armies” the way God directs His 
angels. In t his scenario, tlie self is like “the slave responsible for pro- 
visions who is deceitful, sly, crooked and malicious, taking on the 
shape of a good counselor while concealing lethal poison beneath 
his counsel” (Ihya ’ , 3:6). By such vivid analogies, Ghazali attempts to 


bring home the wonders of our psycliic architecture. For him tlre 
invisible is often embedded not only in the visible but in the physical. 
Through contemplation of the palpable and its analogies, we come 
to true knowledge, which is the prerequisite of fa i t h . We must come 
to know ourselves, for “a knowledge of the mind and its true nature 
is the basis of religion and the foundation of the way of the godly” 
(Ihya , 3:3). 

Earlier, I compared Ghazali witli Pascal. (The comparison was 
first made by Ghazali’s early biographer Margaret Smitla, but too 
vaguely, in my opinion.) Pascal saw man as positioned midway 
between the beast and tlie angel. Ghazali also draws this analogy: the 
human self, he says: 

. . . drops at one time to the lowest of the low and sinks to the level of 
demons and yet, how it rises at other times to the highest of the high 
and ascends to the realm of the angels who bask in God’s nearness! 

Ihya’, 3:3 

But these two great thinkers were utterly different in the end. Pascal 
saw 1'homme sans Dieu, “the man without God,” as incomplete ; but for 
him, humans remained beings endowed with substance. For Ghazali, 
humans as humans have neither meaning nor substance; in them- 
selves, viewed “without God,”humans are mere hypothetical beings, 
made actual only by the divine will. For Pascal die disparity was 
between fa i t h — being “with God” — and disbelief — being “without 
God” — but an unbeliever could change. For Ghazali, the disparity is 
metaphysical; it lies in the nature of creation. In ourselvcs, as purely 
contingent beings, we cannot ever become “real”beings in t hc way 
diat God is real unless we achieve union with Plim. 

Throughout the Ihya’ , a double vision is in play, especially with 
regard to the human world.The whole huge work is an attempt to get 
us to see ourselves as we are; first, in our true circumstances, in our- 
selves, and second, in the more profound sense, as breathing artifacts 
of a wise creator. Our selves, with all their passions and cravings, 
obstruct us from a grasp of our own wondrousness. We must see 
thosc selves for what thcy are — greedy, lustiul, arrogant, lazy, and 


self-deluding — before we can see beyond t hcm to what we truly are. 
“Man is thc most amazing of creatures,” Ghazali says more tlian once, 
“and yet, he is not amazed at liimself.” 

The Child of the lnstant 

Earlier Sufis had described the genuine mystic as “the child of t he 
instant” ( ibn al-waqt, literally, the “son of the moment”). What does 
this odd phrase mean? It may be presumptuous to attempt any expla- 
nation. Like most of us, I live obsessively in the past, consumed by 
regret or nostalgia; when not immersed in t he past, I feed on the 
future : hope and expectation preoccupy my thoughts. With unfailing 
ingenuity, I distract myself from the present moment. I not only can- 
not grasp the present moment, but I don’t really want to.To see with 
the eyes of the heart is to see only the present moment, and not to 
hang suspended between fear and hope. For the Sufi, fear and hope 
pertain not solely to t liis world but to the world to come; and yet, 
even the fear of hell and t hc hope of heaven must be relinquished in 
favor of t he irreplaceable present instant. Only by living and acting in 
the moment can one manage to know and to act with equal authen- 
ticity. For some Sufis, whom Ghazali quotes approvingly, even the 
use of thc future tense in speech is to be avoided, as is any resort to 
the hypothetical; according to Makki, “the future tense is one of thc 
armies of Satan” (Ormsby 1984, 42). 

The injunction to live in the present moment represents one of 
those “as if” scenarios I mentioned earlier. If we live as if only the pre- 
sent moment existed, we may come to glimpse something funda- 
mental about reality. We know the present moment either in 
anticipation or in retrospect; we feel it arrive like a spike on a graph, 
but it passes even as we race to seize it.The true aspirant lives only on 
such discontinuous and fleeting pinnacles of time. 

This is well-established Sufi practise, which Ghazali re-conceives 
in original terms. First, he systematizes the process, providing a step- 
by-step method through which one may open the eyes of the heart 
and glimpse the instant entire. Second, to t liis end, he offers not sim- 


ply scattered sayings and anecdotes, but articulates his method 
within an overarching world-view, discreetly but firmly implanted in 
select doctrines and precepts taken, in sanitized form, from both 
philoso ph ers and tlieologians. This gives his directions their signal 
sturdiness. His awareness of the moment is girded both by AslTarite 
“occasionalism” and by Avicennian “contingency.” Though neitlier is 
always explicitly invoked, each serves to lend a rational and plausible 
articulation of what would otherwise be a baffling directive. We can 
live in the moment, or “as if” in tlie moment, if we understand what 
a “moment” means.The world could be different at every instant. It 
emerges anew from tlie shaping hand and the specifying will of a wise 
Creator instant by instant. Each of these instants could be odrerwise 
but once willed, each becomes necessary. To witness this innermost 
contingency and this infused necessity at each successive moment, 
and in precise detail, botli within oneself and in all creation, is to be a 
child of the instant. 

Trust in God ( tawakkul ) 

When we see everything that is, moment by moment, with t he 
awareness t hat: each moment could be different and yet, is as it had to 
be, we discover no recourse but to trust absolutely in God. We know 
that He shapes each instant, and the world of each instant, and that 
within each one, He places depths ofhidden wisdom. Without t hat 
lovingly concealed wisdom, t he moment would never have come to 
be. If a particular time seems awful, we still know that it came to be 
through God’s will and His wisdom. It is our task to uncover that wis- 
dom, however horrendous its wrappings may appear. When we do 
t his, when we see t he momentary world with insight, we may discern 
t he wisdom beneath t hc horror. But even if we fail to discern t liis, we 
still must trust in God. 

Such utter trust, which Sufis call tawakkul (based on Qur. 1 1 :56, 
among other verses) is a pre-eminent virtue. Ghazali couples it with 
his treatment of God’s oneness in the Ihya ’ . There he shows how such 
trust is to be attained. Everything along the Sufi path depends on this 


attitude of complete acceptance.The Sufi must become before God 
“like a corpse in the hands of t he corpse-washer who turns him how- 
ever he wishes, for t liere is no motion or self-direction in him” 
(Ormsby 1984, 43). Here too,“as if” comes into play. Even if I can’t 
believe that God intends all that befalls me, if I act as if I believed that, 
I may come to find myself on the first precarious rung of tliat infinite 
ladder of trust which leads ultimately to love. 

For Ghazali, trust in God has more nuances t lian for the Sufi mas- 
ters of old. For him, it isn’t just a simple attitude of stubborn confi- 
dence. He is aware of its wider implications, both philosophical and 
theological. He won’t argue tliat we should trust in God because He 
is the “necessarily existing being” from whom all existence and all 
good flow. Nor does he hold, with his AslTarite colleagues, that we 
should trust because whatever God wills, instant after instant, is 
good simply because God willed it, without regard for man’s benefit 
or indeed, for any discernible purpose. Ghazali is closer to his old 
adversaries, tlie Mu‘tazilites, on t his point. God wills the good in 
everything, and in everything He wills there is benefit to humankind. 
But unlike the Mu‘tazilites, he rejects any notion that God is obliged 
so to will. For Ghazali, this is an “optimal” world but it is so, not“in 
the order of the good,” as the philosophers argued, nor as a conse- 
quence of divine obligation, but solely because God acts in accord 
with die dictates of wisdom. 

This isn’t mere intellectual fancy dancing on his part. Neither 
necessity nor inscrutable will fairly characterizes God’s actions. He is 
free and He chooses freely. The Ghazalian insistence on wisdom 
which, carefully transformed, camouflages die old Mu‘tazilite insis- 
tence on divine justice safeguards His freedom. To say (with t he 
AslTarites) daat whatever happens to you must be good because God 
willed it and that His act of will defines the good, is rational, if unsat- 
isfactory, at least on an emotional level. To say (with the philoso- 
phers) that what befell you did so as a final effect in a long sequence 
of causes and effects, the final outcome of which is to tlie universal 
good, is rational enough but offends die emotions equally. But to say, 
as Ghazali does, that what struck you could not have missed you 


because tlie event was shaped and specified in God’s wisdom for a 
benevolent, if hidden, purpose, is more satisfying to both heart and 

Ghazali’s theodicy 

Such considerations bring Ghazali to his notorious and much-dis- 
cussed expression of tlieodicy (the justification of God’s goodness in 
the face of the world’s evil) , drawn from numerous sources but in t he 
end, all his own. 

To trust in God, he argues, you must accept that“there is notliing 
in possibility more wonderful tlian what is” ( Ihya ’ 4:275, in a variant 
formulation; Ormsby 1984). This statement, wliich Ghazali 
explained and defended in several later works, astonished, outraged, 
puzzled, vexed, enlightened, and inspired dozens of thinkers and 
mystics for centuries after his death. A sentence which prompts 
debate for almost 800 years must have touched theological nerves on 
distinctly sensitive points. Controversy raged duringhis lifetime, and 
it continues. Modern Muslim thinkers as disparate as the charismatic 
Turkish mystic Said Nursi (d. 1960) and the Iranian theologian 
Murtada Mutahhari (murdered 1 979) both cite it with approval. 

The sentence occurs in an intricate passage, which I quote at some 
length because it displays several Ghazalian devices quite typical of 
tlie lhya ’ : his love of bravura assertions, his reliance on contrary-to- 
fact hypotlieses, and above all, die complexity of his prose in full 
swing.Trust in God, he says, means that: 

one believe with utter certainty . . . that if God had created all creatures 
with the intelligence of the most intelligent among them and the 
knowledge of the most learned among them, and if He had created for 
them all the knowledge their souls could sustain and had poured out 
upon them wisdom of indescribable extent, then, had He given each 
the knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence of them all, and revealed to 
them the consequences of things and taught them the mysteries of the 
transcendent world, the subtleties of divine favor and the mysteries of 
final punishments, until they were made well aware of good and evil, 


benefit and harm; then, if He had ordered them to arrange this world 
and the next in terms of the knowledsje and wisdom they had received, 
even then, that . . . wouldn’t necessitate addinjj to the way in which God 
has arransjed creation in this world and the next by so much as a gnat’s 
wing, nor subtract from it by so much as a sjnat’s winij . . . Their 
arransjement would not ward off sickness, fault, defect, poverty, or 
injury from one so aHlicted; it would not remove health, perfection, 
wealth or advantaije from one so favored. 

The hyperbole is striking: even witli God’s help, humans could not 
alter tlae world substantially. For, as he continues: 

Everything God apportions to man — sustenance, life-span, pleasure 
and pain, capacity and incapacity, belief and disbelief, obedience and 
sin — is all sheer justice, with no injustice in it; and pure right, with no 
wrong in it.The world God created is not merely “right,” it is insupera- 
bly so, and the most“wonderful”of imaginable worlds.The world as it 
is stands in the necessarily right order, in accord with what must be and 
as it must be and in the measure in which it must be.There does not 
exist in the realm of possibility anything more excellent, more perfect, 
and more complete than it. 

Ihya’ , 4:274 — 75 

I have analysed this passage in detail elsewhere; from preceding chap- 
ters, it should be obvious how skilfully Ghazali has woven together 
Qur’anic allusion (the gnats wing), tlie philosophical (“necessarily 
right order”), the theological — especially thc Mu‘tazilite love of 
“sheer justice” — and mainstream doctrine into a seamless proposi- 
tion.The basic premise he has lifted from Makki, but he has so shaped 
it and adorned it witli new elements that it has become a quite dif- 
ferent statement, not least because the implications left unspoken by 
Makki have been fully drawn out by Ghazali. 

The Love of God 

God’s love for humans, and humankind’s for God, occupies the 
thirty-sixth book of the Ihya’ . Ghazali’s treatment of the subject is 
pioneering, and would influence succeeding generations of Sufis. 


Though he was not t hc first thinker to deal with divine love, he was 
the first to do so systematically. His discussion is as impressive for its 
strategy as for its content. In this way, it reveals yet a further aspect of 
t he lhya ’ , which I may not have emphasized enough : its unusual intel- 

In treating divine love, Ghazali faced a vexing problem. Though 
earlier Sufis had preached a doctrine of love and had written on t hc 
subject, the love between God and man had remained a largely unex- 
plored, as well as questionable, topic.The effect of Ghazali’s treat- 
ment was to place mystical love at the very heart of Sufism. The 
problem lay in the fact t hat the notion of love between God and t he 
human creature appeared a logical, as well as emotional, impossibil- 
ity. How could there be love between a supreme being, utterly tran- 
scendent and utterly incomparable, and such fleeting, insubstantial, 
radically contingentbeings as we are? The gulf appearednot only vast 
but unbridgeable. Is it conceivable tlaat God, tlie paragon and source 
of all beauty and wisdom, could entertain any relationship with a 
humanbeing? As we’ve seen, man may be a “wonder” with respect to 
t hc marvels of creation, but in himself he is, as Ghazali more tlian 
once puts it, “a dungheap covered witli skin” and even, “a sack of shit.” 

The dilemma is ancient; it is first mentioned by none other than 
Aristotle (Goldziher 1919, 430). For certain theologians, as well as 
Sufis, it was not only insoluble but unmentionable; tlae early mystic 
Abu al-Husayn al-Nuri (d. 907), who reportedly wrote a book on t he 
topic, was subject to judicial harassment on suspicion of blasphemy 
(Knysh, 60— 61).The greatest exponent of love of God, thc ecstatic 
mystic Hallaj, was executed, at least in part, for his wild utterances 
which led, in the eyes of certain jurists — though not in Ghazali’s — to 
outright blasphemy. Ghazali’s task, in defending love between God 
and humans, was to render a dubious — and rather touchy — subject 
both plausible and acceptable. 

He employs a startling strategy. He founds love of God on self- 
love, a sentiment no one could deny. In rigorous steps, he sets out 
to prove that all our loves are ultimately grounded in self-love. 
What we think of as disinterested love, say, t he love of parents for 


their children, is actually the most intensely self-interested. Here is 
how he puts it: 

For every living beinjj the first object of love is its own self. Love of 
oneself siijnifies that in one’s very nature there exists an inclination to 
prolonjj one’s beinjj and to avoid non-beinsj and annihilation.There is a 
natural correspondence between him who loves and the object of his 
love. But what could be more perfectly in harmony with him than his 
own self and the prolongation of his own existence, and what could be 
more powerlully at variance with him than his own non-existence and 

lhya ’ , 4:314/ Ormsby 2008 

There’s something unflinching in Ghazali’s analysis of self-love that 
makes modern readers squirm. This appears most sharply when he 
discusses parental love.The love of a father for his son, he argues, is in 
effect a love for the father’s own continued existence. As he says, a 
father “bears troubles for his son’s sake because he will succeed him 
in existence after his own death” ( Ibid .). Even more bluntly, Ghazali 
contends that were a father forced to choose between his own deatlt 
and that of his child, he would choose the death of his child — assum- 
ing, as he radter coldly adds, that the father has “a sound and well- 
balanced nature” - since actual survival is better than virtual. 

Ghazali is deliberately plain-spoken. He wants to hammer home 
the premise upon which his whole case rests: that we act, when we 
act on our own, purely and exclusively out of self-love. God’s love, by 
contrast, is not motivated by any benefit which He might derive from 
us.To persuade us of anotlier form of love, a love without ulterior 
motives, Ghazali needs us to grant this initial irrefutable proposition. 
All the various forms of human love which he lists — love of tliose 
who do us good, love of those who do good to others, loved inspired 
by beauty, love based on mutual affinity — can be traced back to self- 
love.These forms of love aren’t all on the same plane. What Ghazali 
wishes to persuade us of is tliat love for sometliing in itself is possible. 
In this way, by beginning with the most obvious and undeniable type 
of love — our love for ourselves and our greed to go on living — he 


slowly progresses to higher and higher manifestations of love.These 
are all tinged with self-interest, in steadily decreasing degrees; love 
prompted by beauty, for example, is less self-interested than love of 
a benefactor, it may even be die only sort of love which we experi- 
ence for its own sake.Thus a higher love is conceivable. 

Ghazali wants to convince us that, in the end, we love only one 
being, however much we may imagine ot lie rwisc. It is God whom we 
love, in various guises, in all our expressions of affection.The beggar 
loves his benefactor without realizing that it is God who has moved 
t he benefactor’s hand to bestow the alms; the benefactor is no more 
deserving of thanks than is the hand which distributes t hc coin. 
Behind the benefactor, behind t he beggar, it is God alone who acts. 
We are shadows through whom He plays out His part. 

Ghazali must then counter a larger objection. How is it possible to 
love something intangible and invisible? Again, by slow steps, he 
proves that we love many intangible things, from a melody to t he 
memory of a vanished master (his example is, of course, Shafi‘i). 
Even a scent may be beautiful. Ghazali recalls the tradition in which 
t hc Prophet said, “Three things in t h i s world of yours are precious to 
me: perfume, women and prayer, but prayer most of all.” (Ghazali 
comments, ratlier tellingly, that we know t he beauty of women 
largely by the sense of touch.) Beauty, which is one of dae prime 
causes of love, is even more seductive when it isn’t merely physical 
but the manifestation of some inward beauty, beauty of character or 
virtue. God is supremely beautiful: Ghazali cites the tradition,“God 
is beautiful and loves beauty” as evidence. If we can love tlie beautiful 
character of along-dead sage, whose body is now dust — he againuses 
Shafi‘i as his example — why is it unthinkahle to love an unseen and 
incorporeal being such as God? 

Ghazali now reaches t he heart of his argument. We most fully love 
diat for which we feel an inner sympathy, a sense of likeness. For 
Ghazali, t his is the key to love of God. But how is a creature to dis- 
cover the secret affinity which links him or her with the most high 
God? He explains diat diis is “explicable neidaer as resemblance of 
form nor similarity in outward shape. Rather, such affinity is due to 


secret precepts.” These, he disappointingly claims, must be left 
“behind dae veil of bafflement,” for “they may not be mentioned in 
books .” Still, it is possible to infer what is meant from hints which 
Ghazali drops elsewhere. 

Affinity between God and man is to be sought in that willed imi- 
tation of God which both scripture and tradition command. “Mold 
your character to God’s virtues,” runs a famous maxim.This entails 
modeling oneself upon the divine attributes, especially those of 
knowledge, righteousness, kindness, and good counsel. We have seen 
how, in his treatise on the divine names, Ghazali prescribes a medita- 
tive exercise by which a human may become“godlike”through imag- 
ining the process by which God confers form on things. 
Furthermore, in accord with another tradition, in which t he Prophet 
says,“God createdAdam in His form,” we come to realize that there 
must exist some spiritual form, liidden from the eyes of sense, which 
links God and humankind. Again, citing a so-called “holy tradition” 
(hadith qudsi) — that is, a tradition in which God speaks in the first 
person — Ghazali suggests how such concealed affinity may be under- 
stood. God says: 

Let man not cease coming close to Me by works beyond what is pre- 
scribed, so that I may love him, for when I love him, I become the hear- 
ing by which he hears, the sight by which he sees, and the tongue with 
whichhe speaks. 

In the end, knowledge of God, which is t he basis of love, depends 
upon an occult or secret faculty, an “inner eye” which surpasses tlie 
eye of flesh. Knowledge and love are bound inseparably together. In 
a beautiful passage, Ghazali offers tribute to such knowledge: 

The breadth of the knowledge of God is only comparable with the 
heavens and the earth. It leads the gaze beyond all measurable quanti- 
ties for its extent is inhnite.The initiate ceaselessly acquires such 
knowledge in paradise, the breadth of which is that of the heavens and 
the earth. In those gardens he revels and picks their fruit. He sips 
from their cisterns. He is safe from any cessation since the fruits of this 
garden are neither finite nor forbidden.The pleasure is everlasting; 


death does not sever it, for death does not destroy the substrate of the 
knowledsje of God. Its locus is the spirit which is a divine and heavenly 
thinsj. Death alters only its circumstances, death frees it from its captiv- 
ity, but as for annihilating it? Absolutely not! 

lhya ’ , 4:327/ Ormsby 2008 

The object of our striving must be to realize a love that is not self- 
interested. Through knowledge and practise of the virtues we may 
come to this realization, but die way is complicated, not only by our 
own faults, hesitations, and failures but by the very nature of love. In 
several daring chapters, Ghazali describes the lover’s courtship of die 
beloved, who is God Himself, in erotic and amatory terms. As in 
human love, love of God causes fierce longing, intervals of despair, 
wheedling, coquetry, complaint, heartbreak, and self-deception, 
until finally, in rare instants, some indescribable intimacy may be 

This intimacy is captured in a moving prayer by t h c early mystic 
Yahya ibn Mu’adh (d. 871), which Ghazali, with his eye for apt quo- 
tations, includes: 

O God, I am standinsj in Your courtyard and am riven with Your praise. 
You took me to You when I was younsj. You clothed me in knowledge of 
You. You sjave me strength throusjhYour favor. You turned me this way 
and that, in all my actions, throutjh veilinsj and repentance, renuncia- 
tion and longing, contentment and love. You sjave me to drink from 
Your cisterns.You let me wander untended in Your jjardens. I clung to 
Your commandments and remained in love with Your word even after 
my mustache sprouted and the bird of my destiny appeared. Now that 1 
am grown, how may I go away from You? There remains for me now in 
Your presence nothing but buzzing, and in entreating You nothing but 
humming, for I am a lover and every lover is rapt in his beloved and has 
no interest in anything but what he loves. 

Ihya ’ , 4:313/ Ormsby 2008 


G hazali was around thirty-seven years old when he suffered his 
spiritual crisis and left Baghdad. If the years leading up to that 
crisis were devoted to t he acquisition and dissemination of knowl- 
edge, the sixteen years remaining to him were dedicated to action. 
The works written around and after 1095 are no longer merely aca- 
demic; they are engaged.They represent a knowledge gained from 
study and experience, converted into action. But the last part of his 
career was not spent in the writing of books, though he continued to 
be prolific: he wrote several summaries of the lhya’ in Arabic and 
Persian, together with works defending and commenting on its dis- 
puted or abstruse points, purely mystical treatises such as the famous 
Mishkat al-anwar, the “Niche of Lights,” composed an admonitory 
treatise for the Sultan’s edification ( Nasihat al-muluk, or “Counsel for 
Kings”), penned his autobiography, wrote letters and legal opinions, 
as well as his imposing tract on theoretical jurisprudence. His final 
work, the Iljam al- ‘awamm, completed a few days before his death, 
was a pamphlet warning the uninitiated against the possible dangers 
of theology. But during these years, he also instructed novices, 
founded a Sufi “convent,” interacted and interceded with powerful 
government figures, and even returned, for around two years, to 
teaching in Nishapur. 


By his own calculation, Ghazali spent eleven years in seclusion. In 
July 1 106, he returned to Nishapur. He had been urged to return to 
teaching by Faklar al-Mulk, the Seljuq vizier who had succeeded his 



father, Ghazali’s first patron. Two factors persuaded Ghazali to 
return.The first was t he low spiritual condition he witnessed in his 
homeland: Khorasan was stagnating in spiritual apathy. His solitude 
now struck him as self-indulgent. He asked himself, “What do your 
solitude and seclusion avail you, when the disease is widespread, tlie 
doctors are sick, and the noblest people verge on destruction?” 
(. Munqidh , 48).The second was his awareness that he had overcome 
his old weakness, dre love of renown. Of this he remarks: 

I know that even if I have returned to teachinjj, I haven’t really 
returned.To return is to 50 back to what once was.Then I used to 
teach the knowledge by which prestige is acquired, and in both my 
words and my deeds I summoned men to that, that was my goal and my 
intention. But now I am summoning them to the knowledge by which 
prestige is relinquished and its low rank recognized. 

Munqidh, 49—50 

Another factor gave him pause.The sincere Sufi should neither con- 
sort with rulers nor carry out their bidding. He should serve only a 
Sultan who is “pious and powerful” ( Munqidh , 48) . Summoned before 
the Sultan Sanjar on trumped-up charges, Ghazali at first declined to 
appear, though eventually he was forced to comply. A group of Hanafi 
scholars had accused him of slandering the memory of Abu Hanifa. 
For good measure, they threw in accusations of heresy, claiming tliat 
Ghazali was in reality a follower of the philosophers and even — 
because of his discussion of “light” in the Mishkat al-anwar — a 
“Magian” or dualist (Landolt, 72). On other occasions during thcsc 
years, he had declined invitations and offers of money from court. 
This was a pious scruple, practised by otlier Sufis: who could know 
what injustice lay at t he origin of the money offered by the powerful? 
The funds of tlie powerful were as tainted as their motives. Even so, 
it took courage to refuse to appear on this occasion. Rather than 
complying witli the first summons, Ghazali sent a letter to Sanjar. It 
is a bold message, full of admonition and exhortation; he urges t he 
Sultan to contemplate the kingdom of heaven, beside which his 
own earthly realm is “petty and contemptible” (Krawulsky, 64). He 


informs the ruler that he spent twenty years in Baghdad during “the 
days of Malik Shah” but then he: 

. . . saw the world as it was and renounced it completely, stopping for a 
while in Jerusalem and in Mecca, where he vowed at the grave of 
Abraham henceforth never to go before any ruler nor to accept a 
ruler’s money, to engage in no lurther debates and to renounce all 

Ibid . , 66 

But the most impressive and moving passage of this remarkable 
letter occurs when Ghazali intervenes witlr the Sultan on behalf of 
the people of Tus: 

Have mercy on the people of Tus, who have endured much oppression, 
whose grain has been ruined by cold and drought, and whose century- 
old trees have withered from the roots, so that no peasant has anything 
left apart from a skin and a handlul of hungry and naked children. If 
you approve that their skin be taken off their back, so that they must 
creep into the oven naked together with their children during the win- 
ter, then at least do not approve that their own skin is taken off them 
too. If you demand something from them, they will all llee and die in 
the mountains, and what would that be but skinning them? 

Crone, 192 

The letter impressed Sanjar. He issued the command t liat Ghazali “be 
impelled to appear before tlie tlironc so that we may hear his words.” 
When Ghazali relented and entered his tent, the Sultan “rose, 
embraced him and had him sit beside him on the throne” (Krawulsky, 
68). In his youth, ambition had brought Ghazali to court; in his old 
age, the renunciation of ambition brought the court to him. But by 
that time, he no longer craved its favors. 


In the fortieth and final book of die Ihja ’ , Ghazali welcomes death. 
He calls it an “encounter witlr the beloved.” He has no illusions about 


tlie process of dying. He quotes an earlier mystic who said, “Death is 
crueller than the stroke of a sword, or being carved up with saws, or 
cut with scissors” ( lhya 4:491 /Winter, 39). His long descriptions 
of the final agonies make painful reading. He means to shock his 
readers into “remembrance of deatla.” But he is too honest, as well as 
too realistic, to gloss over that terrible transition.The pain of dying is 
so intense because it strikes at the spirit and the body together: 

A wound only alllicts the place where the blade has touched . . . but the 
pain felt during the throes ol death assails the spirit directly and engulfs 
every one of its parts. The dying man feels himself pulled and jerked 
from every artery, nerve, part and joint, from the root of every hair 
and the bottom layer of his skin from head to foot. 

Ibid., Winter, 38; modified 

Ghazali must have sat at many deatli-beds; his observations seem 
drawn from experience: t h c dying person’s eyes“roll up to the top of 
tlreir sockets and his lips are drawn back and his tongue contracts to its 
root, and his testicles rise up, and his fingertips turn a greenish-black” 
( Ibid . , 39) . So excruciating is the final agony that tlie dead recall it with 
a shudder even fifty years later in their tombs. And yet, to the lover of 
God, deatli with its terrors appears slow to arrive. Death is the 
goal to which the path in all its stages leads, for it throws open the 
gates to union with God; but even for the unprepared, death is a final 
opportunity: repentance is possible up to the last death-rattle. 

Ghazali died on December 18, 1 1 1 1 , in his home town of Tus. He 
was buried there and his grave became a site of veneration for his 
admirers. He was around fifty-three years old. His brother, Ahmad, 
would survive him for another fifteen years; during that time Ahmad 
composed a summary of the lhya’ , spread his brother’s teaching (as 
well as his own more provocative doctrines) and met with such out- 
standing younger mystics as ‘Ayn al-Qudat al-Hamadhani, who 
underwent the influence of both brotliers’ example and tliought. 

During Ghazali’s lifetime, his work proved controversial. In the 
Maghrib it was found especially suspect; one of his former pupils 
contrived to have the Ihya ' publicly burnt. But it had huge impact 


too, and was widely celebrated. Ghazali himself read from it to atten- 
tive audiences in Baijhdad. It inspired no fewer tlian twenty-six dif- 
ferent summaries and was even committed to memory in its entirety 
by some ardent disciples (Cook, 451). 

Its fame continued to grow and spread in succeeding centuries. In 
the seventeenth century, the Shi‘ite autlior Fayd al-Kashani com- 
posed a multi-volume commentary and recapitulation of the work, 
and in the eighteenth, the erudite lexicographer and traditionist 
Murtada al-Zabidi devoted years to a rich and painstaking commen- 
tary, in ten thick volumes, on the entire lhya’ . These are but the most 
monumental responses to a work, and a life, which continue to res- 
onate for all thosc, Muslim or not, who search for deeper insight and 
the ways to translate that knowledge into meaningful action. 


Works by Ghazali in English Translation 

Ayyuhal-Walad.-. Letter to a Disciple, bilingual English-Arabic edition tr. with 
an introduction and notes by Tobias Mayer. Cambridge: The Islamic 
Texts Society, 2005 . 

Faysal al-Tafriqa: On the Boundaries oj Theological Tolerance in lslam:Abu Hamid 
al-Ghazali’s Faysal al-Tafriqa.Tr. Sherman A. Jackson. Oxford: Oxford 
University Press, 2002. 

Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din : 

Complete Translations 

Ghazali’s Ihya’ Ulum-id-Din, orThe Rerival oj Religious Learnings. Tr. by Alhaj 
Maulana Fazlul Karim. Dacca: F.K. Islam Mission, 1971. 5 volumes 
(NB : a very poor translation, abridged and based on a Bengali version of 
the original) . 

Individual Books 

The Book oJKnowledge. Tr. Nabih Faris. 2nd edition. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad 
Ashraf, 1966. [— Book 1] 

The Foundations oj theArticles qfFaith.Tr. NabihFaris. Lahore, 1963. [— Book 2] 

The Mysteries oJPurity.Tr. Nabih Faris. Lahore: Sh. MuhammadAshraf, 1966. 
[=Book 3] 

The Mysteries ofAlmsgiving. Tr. Nabih Faris. Beirut:The American University 
of Beirut, 1966. [— Book 5] 

The Mysteries oj Fasting. Tr. Nabih Faris. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 
1968. [— Book 6] 

Al-Ghazali on lmocations and Supplications. Tr. Kojiro Nakamura. 
Cambridge: IslamicTexts Society, 2000. [— Book 9] 

On the Manners relating to Eating. Tr. D. Johnson-Davies. Cambridge: Islamic 
Texts Society, 2000. [=Book 1 1 ] 



“Emotional Religion in Islam as affected by Music and Singing.” A transla- 
tion by Duncan Black Macdonald in Journal of the Rojal Asiatic Societj, 
(London, 1901-02), pp. 195 252, 705—4-8, 1-28. [=Book 18] 

On Disciplining the Soul and On Breaking the Two Desires. Tr. T.J. Winter. 

Cambridge: IslamicTexts Society, 1995. [— Books 22 and 23] 

Al-Ghazali on Patience andThanlJulness. Tr. HenryT. Littlejohn. Cambridge: 
IslamicTexts Society, 2006. [=Book 32] 

Al-Ghazali’s Book oJFear and Hope.Tr. William McKane. Leiden: Brill, 1962. 
[=Book 33] 

Al-Ghazali on Poverty andAhstinence. Tr. Asaad F. Shaker. Cambridge: Islamic 
Texts Society, 2006. [=Book 34] 

Faith in Divine Unitj and Trust in Divine Providence. Tr. David B. Burrell. 

Cambridge: IslamicTexts Society, 2001 . [=Book 35] 

The Book of Love, Longing, Intimacj and Satisjaction. Tr. Eric Ormsby. 

Cambridge: IslamicTexts Society, 2008. [=Book 36] 

Al-Ghazali on lntention, Sinceritj and Trutljulness. Tr. Asaad L. Shaker. 

Cambridge: IslamicTexts Society, 2006. [=Book 37] 

The Remembrance oJDeath and theAjterliJe. Tr.T.J.Winter. Cambridge: Islamic 
Texts Society, 1989. [=Book40] 

al-Maqsad al-asna Ji sharh ma'ani asma’ Allah al-husna : The Ninetj-Nine 
BeautJulNamesjGod.Tr. DavidB. Burrell andNazihDaher. Cambridge: 
The IslamicTexts Society, 1992. 

Mishkat al-Anwar : The Niche oj Lights. Tr. David Buchman. Provo: Brigham 
Young University Press, 1 998 . 

Al-Mungidh min al-Dalal: Freedom and Fuljillment: An Annotated Translation oj 
Al-Ghazali’s al-Munqidh min al-Dalal and other relevant works. Tr. 
Richard Joseph McCarthy. Boston:Twayne Publishers, 1980. 

Nasihat al-Muluk: Ghazali’s Book oj Counseljor Kings (Nasihat al-Muluk). Tr. 

L.R.C. Bagley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964. 

Tahajut al-FalasiJa: The Incoherence oj the Philosophers. Tr. Michael E. 
Marmura. Provo: BrighamYoung University Press, 1997. 

Other Works Cited or Consulted 

Bouyges, Maurice. Chronologie des oemres de al-Ghazali (Algazel), ed. by 
Michel Allard. Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1959. 


Boyle, J.A. (ed.). The Cambridge Histoij oJIran.Yol. 5: The Saljuq and Mongol 
Periods. Cambridjje: Cambridge University Press, 1968. 

Brockelmann, Carl. Geschichte der arabischen Literatur. 2nd ed., 2 vols. 
Leiden: Brill, 1 943^1-9; and Supplement (to lsted.). 3 vols. Leiden: Brill, 
1 937 — 42 . 

Browne, Edward G. A Literarj Historj oj Persia.Vo\. 3: The Tartar Dominion 
(1265—1502). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. 

Callatay, Godelroid de. Ikhwan al-SaJa A Brotherhood (Jldealists on theFringe 
oj Orthodox Islam. Oxford: Oneworld, 2005. 

Cook, Michael. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. 
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 

Crone, Patricia. From Karad to al-Ghazali: Religion, Law and Political Thought 
in the Near East, c.600— c. 1 100. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005. 

Daftary, Farhad. The Isma‘ilis: Their Historj and Doctrines. Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1990. 

The Encjclopaedia oj Islam (2nd ed.). 11 vols. and Supplements. Leiden: 
Brill, 1960-2004. 

Endress, Gerhard, “Mathematics and Philosophy in Medieval Islam,” in The 
Enterprise of Science in Islam: New Perspectives, ed. Jan P. Hogendijk and 
Abdelhamid I. Sabra. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003, pp. 121—176. 

Frank, Richard M. Creation and the Cosmic Sjstem: Al-Ghazali andAvicenna. 
Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1992 [Abhandlungen der Heidelberger 
Akademie derWissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 1 ]. 

— Al-Ghazali and the Ash ‘arite School. Durham: Duke University Press, 

Ghazali, Abu Hamid. Fada’ih al-Batinijja [al-Mustazhiri] — Goldziher, 
Streitschrjt, (1916) below. 

— lhja’‘ulum al-din. Beirut, 1996. 5 vols. 

— Al-IqtisadJi’l-i ‘tiqad. Ed. Ibrahim A. (jlubuk^u and Hiiseyin Atay. Ankara, 

— -Jawahir al-Qur’an. Beirut, 1977. 

— Kitab al-Arba ‘inji usul al-din. Cairo, 1 344. 

— Maqasid aljalasjah. Ed. Sulayman Dunya. Cairo, 1961 . 

— Al-Maqsad al-asna Ji sharh ma‘ani asma’ Allah al-husna. Ed. Fadlou A. 
Shehadi. Beirut, 1971 . 

— Mijar al- ‘ilmjijann al-mantiq. Beirut, 1978. 

— Mizan al- ‘amal. [German translation:] Das Kriterium des Handelns. Tr. by 


‘Abd-Elsamad ‘Abd-Elhamid Elschazli. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche 
Buchgesellschaft, 2006. 

— Al-Munqidh min al-dalal. Ed. Farid Jabre. Beirut, 1959. 

— Al-Mustasfa min ‘ilm al-usul. Bulaq, 1 322. 2 vols. 

— Tahafut al-Jalasifah. Ed. Maurice Bouyges. Beirut, 1927. 

Goldziher, Ignaz, “Die Gottesliebe in der islamischenTheologie,” Der Islam 
9 (1919), pp. 1 44 — 158 (— Gesammelte Schrijten , ed. Joseph Desomoygi 
[Hildesheim, 1970], vol. 5 , pp. 41 8 — 432) . 

— lntroduction to Islamic Theologj and Law. Tr. by Andras and Ruth Hamori. 
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981. 

— Streitschrjt des Gazali gegen die Batinijja-Sekte. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1916. 

Griffel, Frank. Apostasie undToleram im Islam:Die Entwicklung zu al-Gazalis Urteil 
gegen die Philosophie und die Keaktionen der Philosophen. Leiden: Brill, 2000. 

— “Al-Gazali’s Concept of Prophecy: The Introduction of Avicennan 
Psychology into As’arite Theology,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy , 14 
(2004), pp. 101-144. 

Hillenbrand, Carole. “Islamic Orthodoxy or Realpolitik? Al-Ghazali’s 
Views on Government,”/ran 36 (1988), pp. 81—94. 

Hodgson, Marshall G.S. TheYenture Jlslam: Conscience and History in aWorld 
Civilization. 3 vols. Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1974. 

Hogga, Mustapha. Orthodoae, suhversion et rejorme en Islam: Gazali et les 
Seljuqides. Paris: J.Vrin, 1993. 

Hourani, George F. “A Revised Chronology of GhazalT’sWritings ( "Journal 
oj the American Oriental Society 104 (1984), pp. 289—302. 

Ibn al-Athir, ‘Izz al-Din. The Annals oj the Seljuq Turks: Selectionsjrom al-Kamil 
Jt’l-Ta’nkh. Translated and annotated by D.S. Richards. London: 
RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. 

Ibn Khallikan. Wajayat al-a‘yan wa-anha’ abna’ al-zaman. Ed. M. MuhyT 
al-DTn‘Abd al-HamTd. 6 vols. Cairo, 1 367. 

Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Tahcjut al-TahcJut. Ed. Maurice Bouyges. Beirut, 1 930. 

— Tahjut al-TahJut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence) . Tr. Simon van 
den Bergh. 2 vols. London: Luzac, 1954. 

Ibn Sina (Avicenna). The Metaphysics oj ‘The Healing .’ Tr. Michael E. 
Marmura. Provo: BrighamYoung University Press, 2005. 

Juwayni, Abu al-Ma‘ali. A Guide to Conclusive Proojsjor the Principles JBeliJ. 
Tr. Paul E.Walker. Reading: Garnet Publishing, 2000. 

Keeler, Annabel. SJi Hermeneutics: the Qur’an Commentary oJRashid al-Din 


Maybudi. Oxford and London: Oxford University Press in association 
withThe Institute of Isma‘ili Studies, 2006. 

Knysh, Alexander. Islamic Mysticism-.A Short History. Leiden: Brill, 2000. 

Krawulsky, Dorothea. Brieje und Reden desAbu Hamid Muhammad al-Gazzali. 
Freiburg: Klaus SchwarzVerlag, 1971. 

Landolt, Hermann. “Ghazali and ‘Religionswissenschaft’ ” in Recherches en 
spiritualite iranienne: recueil d’articles. Teheran: Institut Franfais de 
Recherche en Iran, 2005, pp. 25—81 . 

Le Strange, Guy. The Lands oj the Eastern Caliphate: Mesopotamia , Persia, and 
Central Asiajrom the Moslem Conquest to theTime oJTimur. London: Frank 
Cass&Co., 1966 (first published 1905). 

Macdonald, Duncan B.“The Life of al-GhazzalT, with Especial Reference to 
His Religious Experiences and Opinions,” Journal oJtheAmerican Oriental 
Society 20 (1 899), pp. 71—132. 

Makdisi, George. Ibn ‘Aqil: Religion and Culturein Classical Islam . Edinburgh: 
Edinburgh University Press, 1997. 

Marmura, Michael E. “Avicenna,” in The Encyclopedia oj Philosophy. New 
York: Macmillan, 1967, vol. 1 , pp. 226— 229. 

Melchert, Christopher. Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006. 

Mitha, Farouk. Al-Ghazali and the Isma ‘ilis:A Debate on Reason andAuthority in 
Medieval Islam. London; NewYork: I.B.Tauris, in association withThe 
Institute of Isma‘ili Studies, 2001 . 

Moosa, Ebrahim. Ghazali and the Poetics oj lmagination. Chapel Hill: Univ. of 
North Carolina Press, 2005. 

Nagel,Tilman,“Das Kalifat der Abbasiden,”in Ulrich Haarmann and Heinz 
Halm (eds), Geschichte der arabischen Welt. 4th rev. ed. Munich: C.H. 
Beck, 2001, pp. 101—166. 

Nasir-i Khusraw. Divan-i ash ‘ar. Ed. M. Minovi and M. Mohaghegh.Tehran, 

Nishapuri, Zahir al-Din. The History of the Seljuq Turksjrom the Jami' al- 
Tawankh : an Ilkhanid Adaptation oj the Saljuq-nama oj Zahir al-Din Nisha- 
pun. Tr. KennethAllin Luther; ed. by C. Edmund Bosworth. Richmond 
[Surrey]: Curzon, 2001 . 

Nizam al-Mulk. The Book oj Government or Rules Jor Kings: The Siyar 
al-Muluk or Siyasat-nama. Tr. Hubert Darke. London: Routledge & 
Kegan Paul, 1960. 

Ormsby, Eric. “Abu Hamid al-Ghazali vu par Louis Massignon,” in Louis 


Massignon et Iran, ed. by Eve Pieruniek andYann Richard. Leuven; Paris: 
Peeters, 2000, pp. 5 1—59. 

— “Creation in Time in Islamic Thoujjht with special reference to al- 
GhazalT,” in God and Creation : an Ecumenical Symposium, ed. David B. 
Burrell and Bernard McGinn. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame 
Press, 1990, pp. 246—264. 

— “Dream, the Poor Man’s Prophecy: Al-GhazalT on Dreams,”in Dreaming 
across Boundaries: the Interpretation of Dreams in Islamic Lands, ed. Mohsen 
Ashtiany and Louise Marlowe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 

— “The Taste of Truth: the Structure of Experience in al-GhazalT’s 
Al-Mungidh min al-Dalal,” in Islamic Studies presented to Charles J. Adams 
(Leiden: Brill, 1991), pp. 133—152. 

— Theodicy in Islamic Thought:The Dispute over al-Ghazali’s ‘Best oJAU Possible 
Worlds’ . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. 

Serrano-Ruano, Delfina. “Why did the Scholars of al-Andalus Distrust al- 
Ghazali? Ibn Rushd al-Jadd’s Fatwa on Awliya’ Allah,” Der Islam 83 (2006), 

Shafi‘ i. Islamic Jurisprudence: Shaji ‘i’s Risala.Tr. Majid Khadduri. Baltimore: 
The Johns Hopkins Press, 1961. 

Tawhidi,Abu Hayyan. Al-Muqabasat. Baghdad, 1970. 

‘Uthman, ’Abd al-Karim. Sirat al-Ghazali wa-aqwal al-mutaqaddimin Jihi. 
Damascus, n.d. 

Van Ess, Josef. The Flowering oj Muslim Theology. Cambridge: Harvard 
University Press, 2006. 

— “Skepticism in Islamic Religious Thought,” al-Abhath, 21 (1968), 

pp. 1—18. 

Watt, W. Montgomery. “The Authenticity of the Works Attributed to 
al-Ghazali,”yourna/ oj the KoyalAsiatic Society (1952), pp. 24 — 45 . 

— “The Study of al- Ghaza lT,” Oriens 13/14(1961), pp. 121—132. 

Wensinck, A.J. La pensee de al-Ghazzali. Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1940. 

Wisnovsky, Robert. Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context. Ithaca: Cornell 
University Press, 2003. 

— “One Aspect of the Avicennian Turn in Sunni Theology,” Arabic Sciences 
and Philosophy, 14 (2004), pp. 65—100. 

Zabidi, M. Murtada. IthaJ al-sadat al-muttaqin bi-sharh asrar Ihya’ ‘ulum’ al- 
din. 1 0 vols. Cairo, 1311/1894. 


NB: The Arabic definite article al- is not considered at the beginning oj main entries. 

Abbasids 5, 12,22,31 
‘Abd al-Ghafir al-Farisi (biographer) 29 
‘Abd al-Jabbar (Mu‘tazilite theologian) 5 1 
Abraham 81, 141 

Abu al-Hudhayl al-‘Allaf (Mu‘tazilite 
theologian) 50 
Abu Bakr (Caliph) 40, 30, 60 
Abu Hanifa (jurist) 9—10,140 
Abu Nasr al-Isma‘ili (scholar) 26 
Abu Sa’id ibn abi al-Khayr (Sufi) 23 
Abu Y azid al-Bistami (Sufi) 2 3 , 42 
accidents 53—4, 84; see also substance 
affinity, as basis of love 135—7 
Afghanistan 4 

Agent Intellect 8 1 ; see also Bestower of 

Ahmad ibn Hanbal (jurist) 7—9 
ahwal 1 04; see also states 
Alamut 1 7 

Alexander of Aphrodisias (Greek 
philosopher) 1 5 
Algazel 66; see also Ghazali 
‘Ali (Caliph and Imam) 69 
‘Ali al-Rida (Imam) 22 
Almoravids 1 0 
alms 102,136 
Alp Arslan (Sultan) 5—6 
ambition, and Ghazali 88, 107, 112—3, 

amulet 114 

analogy 7-8, 37-9, 123, 127 
angel 80, 128 
ant 61,63, 111, 124 
anthropomorphism 8 

aphasia 1,88,119 
appetite 1 25 

argumentation (as causative) 78 
Aristotle 3, 15, 18,49, 72, 75-6, 134 
“as iP(inSufism) 130-1 
asceticism (as generosity) 41 
ascetics 1 8 ; see also saints 
al-Ash‘ari, Abu al-Hasan (theologian) 1 1 , 
13-14,52,59,71, 113 
Ash‘arites 3-4,9, 11, 14, 18,41,48,55, 
78-80, 131 
aslah, see optimum 
Assassins 1 7 ; see also Isma ‘ ilis 
astronomy 66, 80— 1 
atom 63, 78, 84 

attributes (of God) 60—1 , 84, 1 37 
autobiography (of Ghazali) 25; see also 
Munqidh min al-Dalal 
Averroĕs, see Ibn Rushd 
Avicenna, see Ibn Sina 

Baghdad 5-6, 11-12,22,24,31,41,87, 
106-9, 139 

al-Baghdadi, Abu al-Barakat (philosopher) 

Balkh 24, 30, 107 

al-Baqillani, Abu Bakr (theologian) 52, 

Basra 11 — 13 

batin 99, 103 

Batiniyya, see Isma‘ilis 

beauty 41, 120, 136;andGod, 136 

bedbug 14, 124 

Beduin 36, 40 



bees 111 
beggar 1 36 

being, 71—3; see also existence 
Berkeley, George (philosopher) 95 
Bestower of Forms 8 1 
bi-la kayf 8—9 
Bible 77 

Bishr ibn al-Harith (Sufi) 1 08 
blasphemy 1 34 
blindness 80 

body, human 53, 84, 90, 123 

BookofDoubts 95 

books, and bookishness 98 

Buddhism 4 

butterfly 97 

Buyids 4 

Byron, Robert 21 

Cairo 1 6 

Caliph, Abbasid 1 , 25, 30—1 ; and 
Caliphate 9; see also Abbasids 
Canon oj Medicine (Ibn Sina) 88 
causality 67, 77—86; secondary 78—80 
cause, in law 37 

certainty 1, 25, 28, 35, 37, 106; defined 

chess 59, 1 1 1 

“child of the instant” 1 29—30 
childbirth 114 
children, death of 135 
Christians 75 

Chuang-Tzu (philosopher) 97 
Claudel, Paul 107 
cognition, types of 47 
Commander of the Faithful 5 ; see also 

“commanding the right, forbidding the 
wrong” 36 

Companions of the Prophet 39 
conception, as caused by God 80 
contingency 53-5, 73, 121, 130 
convent 62 
conversion 1 07 
Cook, Michael 36 

corpse 78, 131 

creation 1 2 1 ; as copy 125; temporal 7 1 ; 

astext 123—5 
Crusaders 1 7 

da ‘i 16; see also Isma ‘ ilis 
Damascus 25, 109 

death 79, 1 38; as encounter with God 
141; final agonies 1 42 ; 
remembrance of death 1 42 
decapitation 79, 85 
Democritus 1 5 
dhawq , see taste 
dialectic 35; see also theology 
dialektikoi 1 2 
diffraction 94 
dinar 39 

disputation 1 1 ; Ghazali as disputant 29 
doctors 88 

doubt 53, 86, 10 6; see also scepticism 
dream 96-7, 1 1 3 
drunkenness 1 04 
dualists 1 40 

“dungheap covered with skin,” of humans 

earthquake 23 

edible earth 2 1 

Egypt 30 

elephant 1 24 

Eliot, T. S. 60 

emanation 74 

Enneads (Plotinus) 1 5 

Epicureans 1 5 

essence Cl\see also existence 

eternity, of world 16, 76 

ethics, Sufi 117 

etiquette, Sufi 117 

evil eye 1 09 

evils, in creation 1 3 

exemplum, Ghazali as 93 

existence, and non-existence 1 2 1 ; as 

added to essence 72; miseries of 57 
of God 53 

INDEX 153 

“eyes of the heart” 25,52, 100, 121, 137 

Fakhr al-Mulk (vizier) 139 
Falsafa 3 , 16; see also philosophy 
al-Farabi (philosopher) 16, 49—50, 72 
al-Farmadhi, Ahmad ‘Ali (Sufi) 26—7 
Fatimids 4, 16-17, 23, 30, 101 
Jatwas 35 
Faysal al-tafriqa 39 
fear, in Sufism 129 
Firdawsi (poet) 2 1 2 
fire, and cotton 79—80 
First Cause (God) 55 
First Philosophy 70 
forbidden topics, in Sufism 1 1 5 
form, and creation 62 
four, as occult number 1 1 3—4, 1 20 
Frank, RichardM. 67,84 
free will 87;ofGod 124, 131 
friends of God 1 1 2 ; see also saints 
Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad (Sufi) 1 08 
fundamentalists 8, 10 
fuqaha’ 39; see also law 
future tense 129 

Galen 15,124 

generosity, and asceticism 41 ; God’s 
generosity 73 — 4 
geometry 66 
Ghazala (village) 22 
al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid 

xv— xvi, 24 — 5 (overviews); ambition 
88, 107, 112-3, 141 ; at court 5, 
31—2; crisis of doubt 13, 85—6, 
93—8 ; death 1 42 ; “destroyer of 
philosophy” 65— 7;dreams 96; 
eclecticism 1 5 ; on family life 
108—9; as father 1 12; as Imam 30; 
“insincerity” of 5 1 ; as “jurist of the 
soul” 43; and Juwayni 27— 9; the 
law 41—3; liaison to courts 5 ; his 
name 22; at Nizamiyya 29—30,87; 
origins 22— 3;patrons 29;Proofof 

Islam 19, 22, 1 13; prose style 93; 
renewer of religion 8, 24, 113; 
second crisis and breakdown 1 2 , 
25, 33, 86-92, 106-8, 139; and 
Seljuqs 3, 5-6, 23, 29-33, 140; and 
Shafi‘i 7— 8, 40— 1 ; teaching 29—30, 
87-8, 90, 92, 107, 139-40; teachers 
26—8; withdrawal from public life 
25, 106-8 

Themes and topics 

analogy 37— 9;onbeing 7 1 — 4-; 
causality 77— 86; certainty 35,47; 
factionalism of schools of law 9; Ibn 
Sina 55— 6, 92— 3; Isma‘ilis 17, 
99-104; law 35-7, 41-3; loveof 
God 1 3 3—8 ; methods of argument 
53—5; Mu‘tazilites \4 — 15, 52, 56; 
neutrality of sciences 66; 
occasionalism 78—80, 85—6; 
philosophy 15—16,67,75—7; 
prestige 32, 88, 140; Sufism 
18-19, 104, 1 19-32; on taqlid 47, 

7 5 ; theodicy 132—3; theology 
45—8, 51—8, 63 — 4; ‘ulama’ 39-1-0, 
64; see also Ghazali (Ahmad), Ihya ’ , 
Isma‘ilis, Munqidh , philosophy, 
polemics, reason, theology, and titles 
of individual works 

al-Ghazali, Ahmad (brother) 22, 87, 94, 
101, 109, 142 
Ghaznavids 4 
Ghazzali, see Ghazali 
Ghuzz, see Oghuz 
gnat 61, 111, 124, 133 
God 52, 1 1 1 ; as Beloved 126, 138;justice 
of 1 3 ; as light 5 3 ; mercy of 98 ; 
nature of 74; as necessarily existing 
72, 1 3 1 ; as One 55, 123, 130; as 
unknowable 41,61; God’s virtues to 
be imitated 1 37 ; see also “habit”; love; 
knowledge (of God); names of God; 
union; will; wisdom 

good and evil 1 3— 1 4; see also optimum, 


Greek, translations from 1 5 

“habit,” of God 77-81,83,85 
hadith l—8;hadithqudsi 137 
Hafiz (poet) 94 

al-Hallaj , Husayn ibn Mansur (Sufi) 19, 
42, 134 

al-Hamadhani, ‘Ayn al-Qudat 
(philosopher) 142 

Hanafis (school of law) 3, 9— 10, 41 , 140 
Hanbalis (school of law) 3, 7—8, 11,41, 
hand 123 

Harun al-Rashid (Caliph) 22 
al-Hasan al-Basri (theologian) 1 2 
Hasan-i Sabbah (Isma‘ili leader) 1 7, 

heart 43, 126— 7; states of 103 
Hebrew, translations into 65 
heedlessness 64 

hell 14 

heresy 1 2 , 49; and heretics 1 6 
hikmat (Persian) 24; see also wisdom 
Hippocrates 75 
“hoarding,” by God 74 
Hodgson, Marshall 103 
hope, in Sufism 129 
humor, in philosophy 83 
humours 88 

hypochondria, and Ghazali 91 

Ibn al-Athir (historian) 4, 26 
Ibn al-Mubarak (Sufi) 1 08 
Ibn al-Rawandi (theologian) 95 
Ibn ‘Aqil ( jurist) 6 
Ibn Hazm (theologian) 58 
Ibn Khallikan (biographer) 22 
Ibn Rushd (philosopher) 15, 50, 56, 
65-6, 77-8, 84 

Ibn Sina (philosopher) 3 , 16—17, 49—5 0 , 
55-6,68,70,72,88,91, 105, 121; 
andlsma‘ilis 16— 17; on dreams 96 
Ibn Tufayl (philosopher) 22, 65 
Ibrahim ibn Adham (Sufi) 1 07 

St Ignatius of Loyola 6 1 
ignorance, as disease 91 
Ihja’ ‘ulum al-din 5, 18, 25, 33,41; 

architecture of 113—15; character of 
110—12; commentaries on 143; 
contents 116—18; double vision of 
1 28—9; epitomes of 142—3; impact 
143; as performative text 115—16; 
and “as if’ 1 29—30; personal aspect 
of work 118—19; publicly burnt 1 0, 
142;readings 143; style 132; 
summaries 1 39; as “synthesis” 112, 

al-Iji, ‘Adud al-Din (theologian) 66, 81 
ijtihad (“intellectual effort”) 7, 37 
Ikhwan al-Safa’ 19 

Iljam al- ‘awamm ‘an ‘ilm al-kalam 51, 139 
illumination 103, 115 
imagination 83 

Imam 16-17, 99-100, 103; Ghazalias 
Imam 30 
imitation 75 
Imitation oj Christ 98 
impossibility 72 
impotence 58—9, 104 
infallibility , of Prophet and Imam 101 
inference, from visible to invisible 39, 73 
insight, absence of 60—1 
intellect 1 2 , 43 , 126; and admissibility 
8 3 ; autonomous 1 3 ; stage beyond 
intellect 47 
intention, in law 43 
Intentiones philosophorum 66; see also 
Maqasid al-jalasja 
intoxication 37 
intuition 38 

al-lqtisadji’l-l‘tiqad 52—58, 67, 89, 

Iran 1 6; see also Khorasan 
Iraq 12, 16, 30; see also Baghdad 
irja ’ ( suspension of judgement) 1 0 
Isfahan School 65 

al-Isfahani, Abu Nu‘aym (Sufi biographer) 


al-Isfara’ini, Abu Ishaq (theologian) 1 1 3 

INDEX 155 

Ishaq ibn ‘Imran (physician) 88 
Isma‘il 16 

Isma‘ilis 3, 16-18, 24, 30, 48, 89, 

98— 104, 122; as “Assassins” 109; 
see also Seveners 
Istanbul 81 

i ‘tazala (“withdraw”) 1 2 

Ja‘far al-Sadiq (Shi‘ite Imam) 1 6 
jah , see status 

Jahm ibn Safwan (theologian) 8 
al-Jawziyya, Ibn Qayyim (jurist) 43 
Jerusalem 48, 141 
Jews 75 

Johnson, Samuel 95 
jurisprudence 139; theoretical, see usul 
al-fiqh ; see also law 
Jurjan 22, 24, 26 

justice (divine) 14; in world order 133 
al-Juwayni, Abu al-Ma‘ali 

(theologian/jurist) 1 1 , 24, 26—9, 
36,42,52,55,58-9, 101 

Kalam 3,7, 11—15, 16; and Ghazali 

63 — 4; criticism of 7; proofs 46; as 
“speech” 49; see also theologians, 

al-Kashani, Fayd (theologian) 143 
kerjgma (Gr. “preaching”) 103 
Khabushan 26 
Khazars 4 

Khorasan 4, 12, 16, 21-1-, 30, 140 
khutba (“sermon”) 30 
Khwarizm 22 
Kierkegaard, Soren 90 
al-Kindi, Abu Yusuf (philosopher) 15—16, 
28,49-50, 124 
Kirman 23 

Kitab al-arba‘in 79 114 
knowledge, and action 2, 40, 43, 98; 
“beyond the intellect” 97; of God 
59—61, 137; of particulars 47, 77; 
self-knowledge 128; theoretical and 
practical 69—70 

kohl 120 
Kufa 12 

kifr 12, 39, 75; see also heresy 
al-Kunduri (vizier) 27 
Kurds 36,41 

Latin 66 
law 6-10,35-1-3 
Letter to a Disciple 89 
library 82 

light 97 ; and darkness 123 

logic 28, 33, 66; andlaw 36 

love, of God 1 20, 1 33— 8; of self 134 — 5; 

parental 1 34—5 
Lucretius 57 
lust 1 26 

madhhab 6; see also schools 
madness 1—2, 91 
Maghrib 10, 142 
Magians 1 40 
magic square 114 
Mahmud of Ghazna (ruler) 4 
Maimonides (philosopher) 65, 78 
al-Makki, Abu Talib (Sufi writer) 1 06, 
122, 129, 133 

Malik ibn Anas (jurist) 7,10 
Malik Shah (Sultan) 6, 17, 31, 141 
Malikis 1 0 

al-Ma’mun (Abbasid Caliph) 9 
Man, as amazing 129, 1 34; as excrement 
134; between beast and angel 128; 
“without God” 128 
Manichaeism 4 
Maqasid al-Jalasifa 67—74 
al-Maqsad al-asna 58—63 
Marco Polo 1 7 
markets 64, 82, 111 
Mashhad 21—2 

Mas ‘ ud ( Ghaznavid Sultan) 2 3 
al-Maturidi, Abu Mansur (theologian) 10 
Mawsil 30 

al-Mazari, Abu ‘Abd Allah (Maliki jurist) 



Mecca 27, 119, 141 
medicine 53, 68, 80—1 
Medina 10, 27 
meditation 62 
melancholy 88 
Merv 21, 30 
Metaphysics (Aristotle) 92 
microcosm 1 24 — 5 
Mihna 9 

minaret (“of Ghazali”) 1 09 
miracles 77—8, 85 
Mishkat al-anwar 1 39 
Mi ‘yar al- ‘ilm 29, 70; see also logic 
Mizan al- ‘amal 10 
modalities 54, 72 
moment, in Sufism 1 30 
money 140 

money-changer, Ghazali as 96 
Mongols 21 
moon 77, 81 
Muhammad, see Prophet 
al-Muhasibi, Harith ibn Asad (Sufi) 1 06 
al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (autobiography) 
25, 87, 100, 1 14; composition 
92 — 4 

al-Muqtadi (Abbasid Caliph) 31 
Murji’ites 9 

Musawwir (name of God) 62 
al-Mustasfa min ‘ilm al-usul 35,51 
al-Mustazhir (Abbasid Caliph) 17, 31, 89, 

al-Mustazhiri (anti-Isma‘ili polemic) 26, 
89, 101 

Mutahhari, Murtada (theologian) 132 
mutakallimun 1 2 , 49 ; see also theologians 
al-Mutawakkil (Abbasid Caliph) 12,51 
Mu‘tazilites 3,6, 9, 11, 13-14, 18,52, 

1 24, 131; and optimism 39,56; 
origins 1 2 

nabidh , see palm wine 
Najaf 56 

names, of God 26, 41 , 58, 61 ; and 

knowledge 58; in professions 22 

Nasihat al-muluk 32,139 
Nasir-i Khosraw (Isma‘ili poet) 23 
nature, law of 1 5 , 78 
necessity 72—3, 79, 1 3 1 ; see also 

Neo-Platonism 3,15,70,81,101 
Nestorians 4 

Nishapur 4, 21, 23-5, 27, 62, 92, 107, 

Nizam al-Mulk (vizier) 2, 4 — 6, 9, 11—12, 

Nizamiyya (madrasa) 1, 6, 12, 24, 27, 
29-30,35,87, 139 
Nizar (Fatimid claimant) 1 7 
Nizaris 99; see also Isma‘ilis 
numbers (occult) 114 
Nuqan 22 

al-Nuri, Abu al-Husayn (Sufi) 1 34 
Nursi, Said (Turkish mystic) 1 32 
nut, as symbol of faith 123 

obligation 57;onGod 13 
occasionalism 78—80, 130; caricatured 

OghuzTurks 3 

opinion, in law 7—8, 10, 101 

optimum 13—14,56,131 

palm wine 37 
paradise 14, 57 
paradox, and Ghazali 1 20 
parents, in Qur’anic injunction 38 
Pascal, Blaise 126,128 
patronage 29 
perfume, and Prophet 136 
philosophers 33, 35, 131; as “dimwits” 
74—6; as doctors 9 1 ; as heretics 

philosophy 15—16, 65—7; and theology 
46—7 ; as medicine 9 1 
pilgrimage 25 
Plato 63,74-5 
pleasure and pain 133 
polo 1 1 1 

INDEX 157 

possibility 54, 72—3 ,121; “nothing in 
possibility more wonderful than 
what is” 73, 1 32; see also modalities 
poverty 133 
prayer 102, 136 

prestige, and Ghazali 32, 88, 140 
prophecy, and dream 97 
Prophet (Muhammad) 7,39^1-0,77, 
101—2, 1 36; his truthfulness 49 
prophets, as doctors of the soul 92 
Proof of Islam, see Ghazali 
purification, spiritual 100 
purity, ritual 40 
Pythagoras 1 5 

Qadariyyah 1 2 

al-Qa’im (Abbasid Caliph) 5 

Qawa ’id al- ‘aqa ’id 48 ; see also lhya ’ 


qibla 102,119 
qijas , see analogy 
quiddity 72 
Qum 56 

Qur’an 7-9, 13, 37-8, 133 
Quraysh 7 

al-Qushayri, Abu al-Qasim (Sufi) 18, 26, 
42, 105, 106 

al-Qushji, ‘Ali (astronomer) 81 
Qut al-qulub (of Makki) 1 06 

al-Radhakani, Ahmad ibn Muhammad 
(scholar) 26 
Radkan 26 

Radkani, see Radhakani 
Rajab 87 
Ramadan 87 
ratio legis 37, 39 
ra’j, see opinion 
Razan 21 

al-Razi, Abu Bakr Zakariya’ (philosopher) 91 
al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din (theologian) 28, 58, 

reason 12, 52; limits of 96 

“religion of donkeys” 47—8 ; see also taqlid 

“religion of the old women” 28 , 48 
Renewer of Religion 8, 24, 1 1 3 
renunciation 88 
resurrection of the body 47, 77 
revelation 52 

Revival oj the Sciences ojReligion, see lhya’ 
Risala (of Shafi‘i) 8 

“roots of the law” 7—8 ; see also usul al-Jiqh 

Sahl al-Tustari (Sufi) 127 

saints 18,23,93,103 

Salih ibn ‘ Abd al-Quddus (sceptic) 95 

Sanabadh 22 

Sanj ar ( Sultan) 21,1 40— 1 

Satan 106,129 

scepticism 13, 18, 75, 85, 95; and Ghazali 
26, 94-6; as disease 91 
Schacht, Joseph 124 
scholars 31—2, 64; see also ‘ulama’ 
Scholastic theologians 28,65 
schools (of law) 6—10 
self 125-7 

Seljuq ibn Duqaq ibn Timur 3 
Seljuqs 2-6,9, 11, 16-17,23-4,31,99, 

senses 26, 73; deceived 94;asspies 127 
Se veners 16, 1 00 ; see also Isma ‘ ilis 
sexual intercourse 58—9, 80, 104, 111, 

1 1 9—2 0 ; and paradise 125—6 
al-Shafi‘i, Muhammad ibn Idris (jurist) 
7-8, 37,41 2, 113, 136 
Shafi‘ites 3-4, 6, 9, 18,30,35,38,42; 

and Ash‘arism 1 1 
al- Shija ’ (of Ibn Sina) 9 1 
Shi‘ites 4, 30; see also Isma‘ilis, Seveners, 

sickness 90— 2 ; and health 104,133 

sight, and insight 121—3 ; see also eyes 

sign 123 

sins 117—18 

Smith, Margaret 128 

snake-handler 16, 96 

Socrates 75 

Solomon 24 


soul 77; carnal soul 125 
speech, of God 9; see also Kalam 
spider 1 24; and spider-web 8 1 
spirit 126—7 

Spiritual Exercises (of St Ignatius) 6 1 
stars 6 1 , 94 

states, in Sufism 1 04, 115, 118 
status 32—3 ; see also prestige 
Stoics 1 5 

substance 54; see also accidents 
suffering, of animals 14 
Sufism 1,3,6, 18-19,42,46, 86; in 
Khorasan 23—4 

al-Sulami, Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman (Sufi 
biographer) 1 0 A — 5 
Sultan (Seljuq) 1,5,10,89,139 
summae 28 
Sunna 1 
Sunnis 4, 7, 24 
syllogism 16,38,53,66 
synesthesia 105 
Syria 4, 12 
Syriac 1 5 

system, and philosophy 67 
Tabaran 22 

Tahafut al-Jalasifa 48,56,68,73—86 

Tahtjut al- Tahajut (of Ibn Rushd) 84 

TaTimiyya 99; see also IsmaTlis 

taqlid 7, 17,47,75,99 

tasawwij ’ see Sufism 

taste 1-2, 26, 42, 46, 55, 73, 104—5, 

116, 122 

tawakkul , see trust in God 
ta’wil 100 
theodicy 73, 132—3 
theologians 11 — 12,65 
theology 27, 33, 45—7, 48, 51—2; dangers 
of 139;negative 8 
thirst 79 

Thomas a Kempis 98 

St Thomas Aquinas 28 

Three Brothers 1 4 

Timaeus (of Plato) 63 

translations, from Greek into Arabic 49 

Transoxania 10 

trope , the world as 121 

truffles 21, 119 

trust in God 130-2 

truth, hidden 17, 103; four ways 98 

Tughril Bey (Seljuq Sultan) A — 5, 23 

Turcomans 36 

Turks 10 

TurkunKhatun 31 

Tus 19-23,26,141 -2 

Twelvers 16, 30, 100; seealso ShiTtes 

‘ulama ’ 31—2; corruption of 39; see also 

‘Umar ‘Abd al-‘ Aziz (Caliph) 113 
‘ Umar Khayyam 1 7 
Umayyad dynasty 22 
Umayyad Mosque (Damascus) 1 09 
unionwithGod 128,142 
Unur (vizier) 3 1 

will of God 15,57,79, 121, 130 
wine 37 

wisdomofGod 121, 124; hidden 130 
wives and children 1 09 
womb 80 
women 36 

world, creation of 47; decipherment of 
121—5; definition of 53; eternity of 
73; order 62 

Yahyaibn ‘Adi (philosopher) 49 
Yahya ibn Mu’adh (Sufi) 138 

al-Zabidi, Murtada (commentator) 143 
Zahiris (school of law) 123 
Zen 61